Veterans Affairs closer to deploying comprehensive e-Benefits portal

The Veterans Affairs Department has started inching toward deployment of an online comprehensive health care and benefits portal recommended by the President's Commission on Care for America's Returning Wounded Warriors in an August 2007 report. VA expects to have a bare-bones site operating in the next few weeks on Army Knowledge On-Line (AKO), the Army's enterprise Web portal.

The Wounded Warriors Commission recommended that VA and the Defense Department develop within a year a Web-based portal to provide patients with health care and benefits information from the two departments. On March 11, top VA and Defense officials told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that they intend to develop Web portals that integrate veterans' heath records on a comprehensive Web site, which also provides information on follow-up services.

Retired Air Force Col. Peter Bunce, father of Justin Bunce, a medically retired Marine Corporal severely wounded in Iraq, said in an interview that a Web portal was only as good as the information it contained. He urged that Web-based systems established by Defense and VA contain information on a range of clinical resources, including care available outside the VA and Defense health systems. Bunce said he found health care and specialists for his son Justin, who also suffers from traumatic brain injury, without VA's help.

Bunce said any comprehensive Web portal should provide information based on geography, and the departments needed to devise a way to supply specialized care and benefits information to patients and their families, rather than expecting them to find it. VA also should ensure that each patient had a case manager who coordinated care -- including home visits -- and one lead doctor to manage clinical care, he added.

Dr. Paul Tibbits, VA's deputy chief information officer for enterprise development, wrote in an e-mail that the initial, unsecured eBenefits Web site available through AKO will link to other sites for use by wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans and their families. By this fall, he said, VA anticipates having a secure eBenefits portal site operational, based on the log-on model of Army Knowledge Online and its Defense Knowledge Online counterpart. This version of the eBenefits portal will present health care and benefits information as recommended by the Wounded Warriors Commission, Tibbits said.

Kevin Carroll, a consultant who previously served as program executive officer for Army's enterprise information systems, said AKO was safer and more efficient because VA will be able to tap into the AKO and DKO personnel directories and leverage those portals' already developed applications. The department then could take a "cut-and-paste" approach to development, rather than start from scratch, he said.

VA also is developing an advanced Web portal called My eBenefits, which is scheduled to go live in fiscal 2009, according to Tibbits.

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