Every year, nearly 100,000 veterans apply for federal benefits due to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other service-related mental health conditions. In the past, these claims required an average of two months to verify in addition to the time needed to review other disability payment requests and make a final determination.
A team from the Department of Veterans Affairs, led by Paul Shute, Christopher Aragao and David Enright, accelerated this process, cutting the time needed to substantiate mental health claims from 60 days to six minutes through the use of a new database that can verify whether individuals participated in stressful events while in the military and during combat.
“This new database enables us to immediately substantiate veterans’ claims,” said Beth Murphy, executive director of compensation service for the Veterans Benefits Administration. “It has brought us speed and efficiency and modernized our claim processing.”
Edward McQuade, director of the VA’s Providence, Rhode Island regional office, said the VA has struggled for decades to gain access to military records that would help verify mental health claims. He described the new database—the Official Military Activities Report, or OMAR—as “innovative and transformational.”
Faster processing helps veterans get benefits sooner and has the potential to reduce the large backlog of claims that has burgeoned during the 17 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 20% of veterans who served suffer from PTSD or depression.
The VA estimates that an average of 20 veterans commit suicide every day, so it’s especially important to get them benefits quickly. “Sixty days is an extremely long time for someone who needs mental health care,” said Shute, chief of operational innovation at VBA.
OMAR now includes searchable datasets of more than a million events throughout the world from base camp attacks in Vietnam between Nov. 1, 1964, and Jan. 28, 1973; scud attacks in Iraq between January and February 1991; significant events in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 and in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2015. Aragao said the VA will continue to add new data as it becomes available.
The new tool came about when Aragao, a claims supervisor in the Providence office, began looking for a faster way to verify claims. He collaborated with a Dartmouth College professor
who had obtained combat data from DOD through numerous Freedom of Information Act requests.
After Aragao determined the information could be used to verify mental health claims, he enlisted the help of Enright, a management analyst in the VA’s Milwaukee office, who built a database prototype. Aragao then contacted Shute at VA headquarters, who saw the value of the concept and partnered with Aragao and Enright to develop a communication, change management, training and deployment strategy for the OMAR database, which includes satellite mapping to visualize service-related events that may have led to mental health problems.
OMAR’s map can validate actual incidents, such as improvised explosive device blasts, Enright said. “That reminds people how dangerous Afghanistan and Iraq were.”
Shute shepherded the project through the VA and into the field where claims are initially processed. He also has educated field personnel in VA’s 56 regional offices and promoted the program through internal communications.
The team effort produced results in record time, from conception in the summer of 2018 to launch in September 2018. “It’s unheard of in the VA for something to go from concept to implementation in a couple months,” Aragao said.
“OMAR was Chris Aragao’s brainchild,” said Rachel Fuhrman, service center manager at the VA in Providence. “He was willing to take a risk and go outside normal channels to find what he needed.”
Jesse Severe, assistant director in VA’s Milwaukee office, said Enright is “creative and has the ability to think of unique ways to use data.”
And Charles Tapp, VA’s deputy executive director of operations, said Shute has been a fierce advocate for the use of the data to speed up the claims process. “He has breathed life into the technology, so, whether you’re a senior executive or in the field, you can understand and apply it.”
OMAR honors its namesake, Gen. Omar Bradley, who famously said, “We are dealing with veterans, not procedures; with their problems, not ours.”
That’s exactly how Shute sees the project. “At the end of the day, it’s about ensuring that we don’t get bogged down in antiquated processes and procedures,” he said. “It’s really about helping veterans.”