The Veterans Benefits Administration, which has stored tens of millions of pages in veteran's files, closed a fast-track procurement on Wednesday that will digitize the paper forms to improve the way it processes and manages benefits.
The contract is part of a push by Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, who said at his January confirmation hearing that he wanted to make the department as "paperless as possible."
The paper claims that one veteran files to receive compensation can fill four or five cardboard boxes, said Gerald Manar, deputy director of national veterans' services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Shinseki in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee described an almost Dickensian atmosphere in VBA offices that process disability claims. "Walk into one of our rooms where . . . decisions are being made about disabilities for veterans [and you'll] see individuals sitting at a desk with stacks of paper that go up halfway to the ceiling," he said. "As they finish one pile, another pile comes in."
The five-year contract, valued by industry sources at more than $150 million, calls for scanning and indexing 25 million images a year from veterans' records, which are stored at more than 250 military and VBA locations nationwide.
Scanning, digitizing and indexing VBA files will be a daunting and labor-intensive task for the company that wins the contract, because each record, which can contain medical documents, might be hundreds or thousands of pages, said Harold Gracey, a consultant with Topside Consulting who served as VA chief of staff from 1994 to 1998.
Manar said the veteran's files include pieces of paper stapled or held together with paper clips, which the contractor will have to remove before scanning. He said indexing the files will be a central element for success in the digitization project, and the winning contactor will have to take care to ensure that the files are indexed correctly and each piece of paper matches up with the correct digital record.
The digitization contract is one step in resolving VBA's paper problems, Manar said. While 25 million documents seems like a significant amount of paper to scan in one year, it is a small number when one considers VBA processes claims for 800,000 veterans. Manar said it is likely the winning contractor will focus on digitizing the records of the 200,000 veterans the agency anticipates will leave the service within the next several years.
VA intends to award the contract to one bidder as a broad purchase agreement on a General Services Administration contract. GSA lists 90 companies that have schedule contracts for document scanning and conversion.