DIRECTOR, EDUCATION SERVICE
VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
February 26, 2009
Good afternoon Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and Members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) strategy for implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill (Chapter 33 of title 38, United States Code). Accompanying me today is Mr. Stephen Warren, Acting Assistant Secretary for the VA Office of Information and Technology (OI&T), and Captain Mark Krause, Chief Staff Officer, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic. My testimony will address the short- and long-term strategies in developing information technology (IT) components for implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, to include our project timeline and plans for hiring new employees, as requested by the Subcommittee.
Our short-term strategy to implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill consists of a two-part IT solution; a fiscal payment system which uses the existing Benefits Delivery Network (BDN) to issue payments, and a “Front End Tool” for use by VA claims examiners to augment the manual processing of claims adjudication.
We will use internal IT staff to build the needed payment processing and delivery mechanisms within the fiscal payment system of BDN for the purpose of making payments. This functionality will allow for entry of all payment types, to include recurring payments (housing allowance), accounting ability, audit trail capability and some availability of reports that will meet finance and budgetary requirements.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill Front End Tool (FET) will be used to augment the manual process by providing additional support that is accessible by processors in each Regional Processing Office (RPO) and VA Central Office. OI&T is delivering the functionality of the FET in three phases, priortized by the capabilities and resources available from OI&T. Phase 1 of this effort will deliver the capability to accept applications and manually store eligibility and entitlement information. Phase 2 will add specific data elements for processing claims under the Transfer of Entitlement provision of the law, provide the capability to perform the payment calculations for school enrollment periods, and contain additional field validations. Finally, Phase 3 will add the capability to perform calculations for aggregating service periods and determining entitlement availability and benefit levels. The FET will be the primary tool used by VA claims examiners in preparing and processing education awards.
Teams of VA subject-matter experts conducted Phase 1 testing of the FET from January 28, 2009, through February 13, 2009. Phase 1 is expected to be deployed by March 6, 2009.
The functionality for Phase 2 of the FET development is expected to be available for use by education claims examiners by July 6, 2009. Phase 2 includes the capability to calculate payment information based on enrollment data, and this availability date coincides with the planned production availability of the BDN fiscal payment system, i.e., the Back End Tool (BET).
Development of the BET is on schedule. The BET portion of the short-term solution allows for input of multiple fiscal transactions to pay the tuition and fees, Yellow Ribbon payments to schools, as well as recurring housing, books and supplies, and various other Post-9/11 GI Bill payments to the students. User requirements were base-lined on December 8, 2008. This initial release accommodates claims establishment to allow for productivity tracking until the full short-term solution is implemented. Full-system testing of the BET is tentatively scheduled to begin on May 4, 2009, and will be conducted over a 7-week period through June 2009.
Phase 3 of the FET, which includes functions that were deemed to be lowest initial priority, or those that had the least impact on our ability to process claims, is expected to be operationally ready in September 2009.
It is important to remember that this IT approach is a short-term solution that we expect to retire by December 2010, when the system that will be used for the long term is developed and implemented by our partners at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic (SPAWAR).
Our long-term strategy to implement the Post-9/11 GI Bill will rely on support from SPAWAR, to develop an end-to-end solution that utilizes rules-based, industry-standard technologies, for the delivery of education benefits. The Post-9/11 GI Bill contains eligibility rules and benefit determinations that will work well with rules-based technology that requires minimal human intervention. VA is currently working with SPAWAR on the long-term IT solution, and expects the development of this program to take between 18 and approximately 24 months from enactment to complete.
Hiring at the Regional Processing Offices
The implementation of the short-term solution will require approximately 530 additional claims examiners at the RPOs. VA has begun the process of bringing the claims examiners on board as term employees. Approximately 418 employees have been hired or committed; of those, 164 are veterans. All employees are expected to be on board by March 1, 2009.
Training at each RPO will begin as soon as all employees are on station. Initially, the term employees will be trained on VA’s currently-existing education benefits programs. Development of a new training curriculum for the Post-9/11 GI Bill began in November 2008. The Post-9/11 GI Bill training materials for Phase 1 were completed on February 20, 2009, and will be presented to all of the RPO trainers at a "train-the-trainer" course to be held at the VBA Training Academy in Baltimore, Maryland early next month. The RPO trainers will then return to their stations to train the claims examiners on the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Training for new employees at each RPO is expected to be completed no later than June 1, 2009.
Project Review, Milestones and Scope of Delegated Responsibilities
To meet the effective date of August 1, 2009, VA has assigned project oversight duties, established milestones, and instituted frequent oversight review.
VA Education Service established a Program Executive Office (PEO) to manage the development of the overall process for administering the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This office is responsible for monitoring and coordinating all Post-9/11 GI Bill implementation activities. In addition to the PEO, VA contracted with the MITRE Corporation, a federally-funded research and development center, as well as SPAWAR, to develop the long-term IT solution.
The first critical milestone was met on November 14, 2008, with the completion of development of the business requirements for the short-term payment solution. The next critical milestone for the short-term solution was completion of the IT functional requirements on November 26th. With the completion of these functional specifications, detailed design will start with an expected completion date for all components of the financial delivery portion by July 6, 2009.
In parallel, VA’s partnership with the Defense Manpower Data Center (DMDC) is facilitating modifications to the VA/DoD Identity Repository (VADIR). Incorporation of unique Post-9/11 GI Bill data elements is well underway, and exchange of test files between VA and DoD is scheduled for March 2009.
The proposed regulations were published for public review and comment in the Federal Register on December 23, 2008. VA received 46 sets of (255 individual) comments prior to expiration of the comment period on January 22, 2009. VA is currently in the process of drafting the final rule.
Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or any of the other members of the Subcommittee may have.