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VA Celebrates Digital Services Innovation to Boost Veterans Benefits Access

The agency recognized recent programs during an event at its health care facility in Palo Alto.

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Department of Veterans Affairs CIO Kurt DelBene speaks during the DigitalVA Expo at its health care facility in Palo Alto June 29, 2023. Photo Credit: GovCIO Media & Research

Top technology leaders from the Department of Veterans Affairs traveled to Silicon Valley June 29 for the DigitalVA Expo hosted at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System to celebrate the progress the agency has made with the launch of new mobile apps, software programs and human-centered design websites making it easier for veterans to access their benefits and receive health care.

Millions of veterans have downloaded the VA’s new Health and Benefits App launched in 2021. The app — built to allow veterans to manage a host of services to include uploading claims documents, booking appointments, and checking the status of claims and appeals — eclipsed 1 million downloads in late 2022. More than 1.6 million veterans have downloaded it as of June 2023.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough, whose flight was canceled the day before the expo, kicked it off via videoconference call. He commended his technology workforce for delivering the app as well as other programs that have reached so many veterans and revolutionized how they engage with the VA.

“This is one app replacing a collection of websites and apps that required vets to wade through a spaghetti junction of entry points to get to us. Now, with one door — that door on their phone — vets get to us and get to fit their services into their lives,” McDonough said.

VA Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology and CIO Kurt DelBene said his team has a goal “to be the best IT in the federal government, bar none.”

“We are going to do that by actually changing the way we do things,” DelBene said during the event. “I tell people it’s more like acting like a product group. We have products that we deliver to end users, the veterans and to the administrations.”

The VA has launched multiple new programs over the past four years and has seen the use of digital services skyrocket, especially the use of telehealth services during the pandemic. VA CTO Charles Worthington called the new website design at the entry point for many veterans.

VA is ‘Breaking Boundaries’

The VA Office of Information Technology’s Lighthouse program has enabled the VA to leverage the wave of health metrics being collected by smartphones, watches and other wearable devices. The program is the VA’s open application programming interface (API) platform that allows developers to securely connect with its databases to better inform health and benefits decisions.

VA Deputy CTO for Health Delivery Lauren Alexanderson said the Lighthouse program has “broken boundaries.” McDonough said his agency had a responsibility to continue to leverage emerging technologies to better serve veterans.

“We must serve vets with data-driven decisions that make vets’ lives better and save vets lives, so we’ve partnered with industry to leverage best practices in AI, natural language processing, machine learning, robotic process automation technology,” McDonough said. “That means using automation to help us make better, faster, more informed decisions, improving veteran health outcomes and benefits decisions while eliminating redundant administrative tasks and workflows and promoting jointness across VA including with our federal and community partners.”

Worthington walked the crowd at the expo through the VA’s portfolio of new digital service programs such as chatbots.

He also highlighted the Veterans Legacy Memorial program that allows visitors to learn about the veterans buried at VA and 27 Defense Department-managed military cemeteries. This digital memorial that launched in 2019 includes over 4.8 million profiles and allows veterans’ families to share memories of their loved ones.

VA leaders acknowledged they need to continue to find ways to make the claims process faster. Worthington said digital services is the avenue to find significant time savings. He explained how veterans can now upload and review claims documents on the app.

“What used to take days is done in seconds,” Worthington said about review claims documents on the app versus using the mail system.

Digital Services Embrace Veteran-Centered Design

The VA has made significant investments in human-centered design. Chief Veterans Experience Officer John Boerstler leads a team focused on ensuring the veterans experience is a focal point in the development of these new apps and digital service programs.

“We’re using a lot of the more cutting-edge technology that you see a lot in the private-sector companies and experiences, especially around automation and how that could impact the claims process, disability compensation process, the education benefits process, as well as health care,” he said.

Secretary McDonough said the agency must continue to push the envelope on what his technology team can achieve.

“VA’s digital experience can be, but very well has to be the most innovative, reliable and customer-focused experience, not just in government or the American private sector, but in the world,” McDonough said.

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