The Department of Veterans Affairs has unleashed myriad technology tools and new management processes to cut a backlog of disability claims and speed benefits delivery that could be a roadmap for every federal agency transitioning to paperless systems.

With the help of smart technology and online self-service access, 1.67 million veterans have registered for the secure VA-Department of Defense web portal, a 400 percent increase in just one year, the Department of Veterans Affairs said Wednesday.

Robert Reynolds, the VA’s director of the Benefits Assistance Service, told Breaking Gov that the surge in enrollees at the eBenefits portal is part of a concerted effort to reach out to service members in new and aggressive ways.

Many of the tasks involved in the eBenefits transition– how to implement new systems, continually improve them and attract users.

“If you have ever walked into a regional (VA) office, you have seen stacks and stacks of paper,” retired Gen. Allison Hickey (pictured above), the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, told the House Oversight and Investigations Committee on Wednesday.

“Our task, our transformation plan, is to eliminate this antiquated, paperbound process that does not serve our veterans, who are frustrated by its lack of speed and transparency,” she said.

On July 1, VA introduced its 11th consecutive quarterly release of improved functionaliity that include benefits eligibility email messages to service members as they reach career milestones and a new Career Center page with employment self-assessment tools. The center had 8,000 visits in its first week.

In the one-year period ending June 2012, there have been 90 million visits to eBenefits and 8.3 million views of claim status. The interest is propelled by a new VA-DoD policy effective in November 2011, that requires new service members to register with eBenefits. The first benefit they can sign up for is life insurance, Reynolds said.

“We know that three out of four veterans who use VA services want to connect online, so we must be there for them with information they need,” Hickey testified.

Hickey told the congressional hearing that VA is moving forward with new tools for the veterans, but still faces 870,000 pending disability claims, including 66% languishing more than 125 days.

The VA has promised to cut that waiting time to 125 days by 2015 and intends to cut it even more in coming years, according to a spokesman.

Reynolds outlined eBenefits’ new initiatives:

  • The VA is pushing out new capacities every three months, including the online self-service for benefits such as insurance, mortgages and burial plans, career transition services, managing a veteran’s health care and education benefits.
  • Service members can now get a benefits eligibility letter online, eliminating a veteran’s trip to a VA office or sending in the request by mail. The eligibility letter is required to get benefits.
  • Veterans can use their DoD Self-Service Logon (DS Logon) for eBenefits, keeping it beyond their years of service.
  • Personal information is filled in automatically when a veteran logs in and calls up any kind of application. It’s modeled on the very successful Turbo Tax online system where standard information is automatically put on a form.
  • Mobile devices are available to help a veteran check the status of a claim instead of calling or visiting a VA center. The mobile feature also includes the ability to tap into the veteran’s smart phone’s GPS to locate the closest VA or DOD facility.
  • Through eBenefits, veterans can find veteran service organizations to represent them on a wide range of issues, including legal problems.

“There’s been a 230% increase in people checking the status of a claim,” Reynolds said. “The more we can allow veterans to self-service, the fewer calls we are going to get.”

Jim Marszalek, an assistant national service administrator for the Disabled American Veterans, said the eBenefits upgrades are a “great enhancement.”

“The newest generation of veterans out there today wants the information now,” he said. “Everyone has a smart phone and they want the information 24/7.”

The eBenefits system went online in 2009 but it’s only been in the last six months that membership began to grow. In 2011, there were 400,000 members. With the growth in the last year to 1.67 million, the VA expects to reach its goal of 2.5 million subscribers by 2013.

The VA is accelerating these services. At a VA jobs fair in Washington, D.C., in January, for example, computers were set up to give veterans a preferential employment letter. In the past, the veteran would have waited for letter in the mail, the letter could have been lost, and the deadline for applying for the job passed.