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VA benefits system continues to encounter processing problems

An online benefits application Web site that the Veterans Affairs Department launched on May 1 continued to encounter problems on Monday after coming to a near halt on Friday.

The department created the Veterans OnLine Application (Vonapp) site in response to the new GI bill, the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act, which provides veterans with more generous educational benefits than the previous GI bill, originally passed in 1944. For example, this version hikes payments for tuition from $1,300 a month to a payment that is pegged at the highest tuition at a public university in a veteran's state of residence, which for Massachusetts would be $10,232. The bill includes monthly living expenses of $1,100 to $1,200.

The site either timed out or responded slowly on May 1, the first day post-9/11 veterans could file for the rich package of educational benefits.

Vonapp continued to frustrate veterans trying to file benefit applications, with the site prominently displaying a message warning users they could experience problems uploading attachments to their online applications:

"Attention VONAPP Users:

Some users have reported problems with attaching documents. This is a temporary issue currently being addressed. If you are unable to attach documents, proceed to complete and submit your application without attachments. Please mail your supporting documents to the VA regional office listed on your confirmation page. Once full attachment capability is available, this page will be updated."

The notice was posted after VA experienced what it described as an "unprecedented" volume of users trying to access Vonapp. Late Friday, after veterans nationwide complained about an inability to access the site, VA posted a notice that read: "We are receiving an unprecedented number of users on the Vonapp Web site at this time. When accessing Vonapp, you may experience delayed response time, error messages and possible timeouts. Thank you for your patience as we work to resolve this issue."

Veterans are asked to supply documents to receive benefits include their DD Form 214, Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty.

In the morning of May 2, users could not access the site. A notice told veterans, "Our servers are currently unavailable. It may be possible they are down for maintenance. We ask that you please try back later. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused you and ask for your patience."

By that afternoon, Vonapp was available with a swift connection from a Nextgov remote office in Las Vegas, N.M., and appeared to be functioning smoothly until the notice about document attachments appeared about noon EDT on Monday.

Robert McFarland, who served as VA's chief information officer from January 2004 to April 2006, said the department should have anticipated that it would have been hit with a heavy load on its online benefits system and should have beefed it up to meet the anticipated demand.

"We're not talking about the entire population of the country [trying to access the site]. . . . It's a finite number, and you plan for that for that finite number," he said.

Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, estimates 1 million veterans are eligible for the new GI bill benefits. Sullivan said the speedy connection he experienced to the site on Monday indicates VA worked overtime to resolve connection problems with the system. "Instead of taking four minutes to enter [on Friday], VA's computers responded in a few seconds," he said.

McFarland said it should not be have been difficult for VA to have developed a system that could manage attachments, and added until it could handle attachments, the Veterans Benefits Administration should use a hybrid online/mail-in application process.

Larry Scott, who runs the VA watchdog group VA Watchdog.org in Vancouver, Wash., said he believed "VBA is creating an electronic nightmare to go along with their paper nightmare."

Scott said it does not make sense to e-mail documents to VBA. "The average vet will scan into a graphic format such as .JPG or .PDF," he said. "To make the document readable, VBA would have to run [optical character recognition] software on it, and depending on the quality of the scan from the veteran, this could lead to many errors that would then have to be manually corrected by someone at VBA."

VBA will find it difficult to collate documents mailed to regional offices along with online application forms, Scott added.

McFarland said the difficulty matching paper documents with online applications depends on whether VA plans to process post-9/11 claims in a central location or regional offices.

The problems VA continues to experience with Vonapp, Scott said, will add delays to a tight schedule to start processing post-9/11 GI bill benefit claims by Aug. 1.

VA did not respond to a query from Nextgov by deadline on what caused the problems on Friday, or what it is doing to resolve the problems in attaching documents to an online application.

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