In July, the Veterans Affairs Department awarded IBM a $9.1 million contract to develop within three months a system to process claims for Vietnam veterans suffering from diseases stemming from exposure to the Agent Orange defoliant sprayed in that country by the Air Force. (The service's units had the motto: "Only you can prevent forests.")
VA presumes all 2.6 million veterans who served in Vietnam had exposure to Agent Orange. If veterans have one of 15 diseases -- including hairy cell leukemia, Parkinson's and ischemic heart disease, which were added
to the list on Aug. 31 -- they don't have to prove they were in an area where the defoliant was sprayed and their diseases resulted from military service.
The new approach to Agent Orange will add 240,000 claims to its case load, which is why it tapped IBM to build a separate system to process machine readable claims that veterans submit electronically.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki hailed the approach as "a new way of doing business and a major step forward in how we process the presumptive claims we expect to receive over the next two years."
But after spending a month chasing rumors and tips, I'm told IBM quickly ran into problems trying to build, by the end of this year, a system that would process 30,000 claims.
I have confirmed with multiple sources that an angry Shinseki last month personally called top IBM management to express his dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on the system. I'm also told VA officials followed up Shinseki's call with a formal letter to IBM telling it to get its act together.
This probably explains why early this month VA issued a notice that it would like to find a second contractor to develop an Agent Orange claims processing system, with the ability to start within 15 days of award.
IBM officials did not respond to multiple calls placed during the past month about the status of the Agent Orange claims processing system. VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts declined to comment on whether or not a piqued Shinseki called IBM.
The Senate Appropriations Committee added $13.4 billion to the fiscal 2010 Supplemental Appropriations Bill this to foot the bill for the Agent Orange claims.
But Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a Marine Vietnam veteran, doubts everyone who served in Vietnam was exposed to Agent Orange, and he wants Shinseki to explain his case at a hearing of the Senate VA committee scheduled for 9:30 a.m. EDT on Thursday.
The Congressional Review Act gives Congress 60 days to review regulations before they go into effect, which means Congress could derail the new Agent Orange rules between now and the end of October.
(Full disclosure: I served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam in 1965 and 1966, and have been in the VA Agent Orange Registry since the mid-1970s.)