Veterans who seek federal benefits for their military service face a system bogged down by paper.
For years, government officials have acknowledged that their process for reviewing requests was slow and prone to unacceptable mistakes.
That's what Barack Obama told voters he would correct if elected president in 2008.
Four years later the campaign pledge isn't fulfilled, but Obama's paperless dream is closer to a digital reality.
The problem: a fragmented system for filing veterans benefit claims
The Veterans Benefits Administration, one of three branches of Veterans Affairs, reviews and grants requests for veterans to receive financial compensation, home loans, college tuition, medical care and more.
The most vivid example of a benefit, and the one Obama seemed to emphasize in his campaign promise, is access to health care from the Veterans Health Administration and its hospitals.
For example, say you're a soldier and you suffered a shrapnel wound from an explosion in combat. Now you're hoping to receive disability compensation and free health care from hospitals run by Veterans Affairs. In general this takes records proving your injury occurred while in uniform and your injury requires medical treatment.
The veterans hospitals must trade information with the military, private doctors' offices and ratings specialists who determine whether veterans are eligible to receive benefits. (These rating specialists also determine how big a benefit a veteran would receive.)
In his campaign promise, Obama talked about "interoperability,” where records from the military and Veterans Affairs could transfer electronically. Instead, what we have today is 1) an electronic health network, which preceded Obama's tenure, 2) a series of electronic pilot projects at the Veterans Benefits Administration and 3) disjointed record systems in different branches of the military. In general the three remain unconnected digitally.
Meanwhile, the two goals the paperless system was supposed to accomplish -- timeliness and accuracy in processing claims -- remain far off.
Several news reports, including stories in the past year from the Center for Investigative Reporting and The New York Times, document long waiting periods -- sometimes beyond a year -- for the government to respond to veterans' claims. Government reports show improved efficiency in processing claims, but also dramatic increases in the number of filed claims -- up 48 percent in the last four years. Among the many reasons for the uptick in claims are a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, increases in the number of medical conditions among today's veterans and expanded benefits available for veterans to claim.
When the inspector general's office within Veterans Affairs reviewed the quality of these evaluations, they also found that its rating specialists often make mistakes, which can lead to incorrect rejections or partial rejections of claims. How often? About 23 percent from a sample of 45,000 disability compensation claims between 2009 and 2010.
Incremental steps to Obama's paperless pledge via pilot projects
The Obama administration has made progress, though. As of October, five of the 56 regional offices had gone digital, with another 13 in the pipeline by the end of 2012. The other 38 are scheduled to go paperless by the end of 2013, though skeptical testimony before Congress by experts at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars suggest it will take longer.
Meanwhile the heads of the Defense Department and Veterans Affairs have agreed to a general plan for a unified electronic health records system within the military, as Obama wanted. Their stated goal is to have all military records systems connected by 2017.
So, it appears that what Obama promised and what has happened during his presidency will eventually result in a comprehensive paperless benefit claims system. However, less than a third of regional offices will be electronic by the end of 2012, the measuring stick we use for the Obameter. Therefore, we rate this a Compromise.