With more than 3.5 million veterans now eligible for new benefits through the passage of the PACT Act, the Department of Veterans Affairs is working to close new gaps across automation and cybersecurity.
“So far, veterans have filed nearly 137,000 PACT Act claims,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said at the Nov. 7 NPC Headliners Luncheon in Washington, D.C. “[VA is] making sure we’re delivering for vets on time, every time, through initiatives like claims automation — cutting claims processing time for certain conditions from several months, to several days.”
VA Deputy CTO Zach Goldfine told GovCIO Media & Research that the agency is preparing for “many more claims.” Typically, VA receives 1.5 million claims per year. The agency is expecting 50 to 100% more with the new legislation.
President Biden signed the PACT Act into law in August 2021. The legislation will fund compensation and health services for veterans who suffered toxic exposure during their time in the service. With this new opportunity for benefits, VA reported increases in PACT Act-related scams, targeting veterans to access their PACT Act benefits or submit claims on their behalf.
VA partnered with the Cybercrime Support Network to detect, combat and increase awareness around the evolving cyber and scammer threats. The organization’s Military & Veteran Program Director Ally Amerson told GovCIO Media & Research that the joint goal of the partnership is to provide educational resources that strengthen online security for servicemembers, veterans and their families.
“The VA is committed to protecting veterans and their families from scammers who are trying to steal those hard-earned benefits,” Amerson said. “We have these two main goals with this partnership. The first is to develop — with the VA — and conduct training either in person or online. ... Second, we really want to encourage veterans and families to report cybercrime ... it's so important to report because that's what helps allocate resources.”
Amerson explained that a common red flag is a sense of urgency to get veterans to act quickly. To combat these threats, VA and the Cybercrime Support Network have launched communication and educational campaigns to increase awareness around evolving threats.
“The VA is going to execute a comprehensive outreach to veterans,” VA CIO Kurt DelBene said during a Sep. 30 media roundtable. “As of Sep. 26, we've got over 80,000 total clicks on the ‘call to action’ file to file a disability claim.”
VA and the Cybercrime Support Network are focused on multi-factor authentication (MFA) — a key pillar of zero trust — to better secure accounts and prevent scams. MFA improves identity management, device security and compliance before authorizing administrative access.
“Using multi-factor authentication is simple, and it’s crucial for securing data and minimizing cyberattacks,” according to a VA blog post.
VA also requested a $107 million increase to its fiscal year 2023 cybersecurity budget, providing greater funding to its information security program, focusing on implementing zero trust precautions. DelBene said VA is honing in on its zero trust framework to develop a set of measures of security and inform decision-making moving forward.
"There's nothing more important than securing the organization, securing the assets that we have, and — at its heart — it's about securing veteran data, which is our commitment to them,” DelBene said.
Amerson said that automated security checks also help patch vulnerabilities and better secure devices and systems. Automation plays a key role, not only in security, but also in delivering new benefits to veterans once VA begins to process claims in January 2023.
VA is taking a measured approach to automation, creating an iterative investment model to build on successes and see greatest return on investment, Goldfine said. Automation can help streamline benefits application and delivery processes by cutting out unnecessary procedures and reducing manual workloads.
“A veteran waits [on average] 100 days after submitting an application for disability benefits or claim and receiving decision, and I think that's way too long,” Goldfine said. “A big one is help veterans wait less time, and then another is improve their experience along the way.”
The agency is removing certain medical screenings and information management to expedite claims processing. VA CTO Charles Worthington told GovCIO Media & Research that the agency has adapted digital claims intake and processing solutions to accommodate both paper and digital claims to streamline data management.
“All paper claim submissions are digitized and associated with the Veterans electronic record. These, along with other digitized records, allow VA to provide Veterans with fast, accurate and consistent claim decisions,” Worthington added.
By identifying cases that have all the required information to make a decision, VA can expedite the process, getting it into the hands of the decision-maker without going through redundant processes.
“The last time I checked, the average there was six days between the person applying and getting a decision,” Goldfine said.
Looking ahead, VA will expand its automation efforts by consolidating veteran data across the enterprise and breaking down silos to quickly locate information related to benefits eligibility.
"We think there's a lot of promise in expanding from just those couple of small sources and say, ‘well, we know that things might show up in this system and that system.’ VA is such a big organization and has built so many systems over the decades that it takes a long time to figure out what information is where, what information would be helpful in certain cases and to put it all together.”