Vets' groups urge IT budget boost for benefits processing

Veterans' services organizations have urged Congress to provide a sharp increase in the information technology budget of the agency that handles their compensation and pension claims.

The fiscal 2009 IT budget request for the Veterans Benefits Administration is about 18 percent less than the fiscal 2008 proposal. The overall IT budget for the Veterans Affairs Department, VBA's parent agency, jumped 18 percent in President Bush's latest request.

VBA's pending compensation and claims backlog stood at 816,211 as of January 2008, up 188,781 since 2004, said Kerry Baker, associate legislative director of the Disabled Veterans of America, during a Wednesday hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Baker said VBA must have the funds necessary to upgrade its IT infrastructure to handle the backlog and a growing caseload. Anything short of an increase is "a recipe for failure," he added.

Carl Blake, national legislative director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, said VBA needed $121 million in its fiscal 2009 budget for its information technology. According to VA budget documents, VBA requested an IT budget of $109.6 million for its compensation and benefits programs, down $23.8 million from $133.4 million in 2008. VA requested an overall 2009 IT budget of $2.53 billion in 2009, up from $2.15 billion in fiscal 2008, with the largest portion earmarked for the Veterans Health Administration.

One VBA IT program whose budget increased in the fiscal 2009 proposal is the Virtual VA system, which VA Secretary James Peake said will reduce the agency's reliance on paper and enable electronic processing of claims. The technology will "dramatically increase the security and privacy of veteran data," he said.

The fiscal 2009 budget request for Virtual VA is $14.8 million; almost triple the estimated $5 million the agency spent on the system in 2008. The budget request for IT program support for VBA compensation systems, a component of its overall information technology budget, was chopped by more than half from an estimated $72.3 million in 2008 to $35.2 million in 2009.

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