VA plan does not compute

Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the Herald-Leader's views.

Congress acted wisely this year when it pushed through — over the objections of President Bush — a major expansion of the GI Bill's education benefits for veterans. At long last, benefits will be more in line with the cost of public and private higher education.

But the Department of Veterans Affairs has set off alarm bells in Congress and among veterans' organizations by proposing to privatize the administration of the new GI Bill. Congress should block any move by the department that will give an outsourced computer program any voice in determining the eligibility and benefits of veterans.

Currently, VA offices in the states administer the education benefits, a system that veterans' organizations say has worked well. VA employees call veterans to fill in gaps in the applications and, if necessary, help applicants by tracking down information from the Defense Department.

The American Legion veterans organization says it is not against an update in the VA's information technology, but that the 250,000-employee department has the capability already.

In particular, the legion says, the VA should draw on the skills of younger veterans who have both IT training and an awareness of the problems veterans face in resuming their lives and pursuing careers and education.

At a congressional hearing Thursday on the VA proposal, the national commander of the American Legion, David K. Rehbein, said the "VA was created to fulfill obligations like this, not to hire someone else to do it."

As advocates for veterans are only too aware, the VA has tried before to privatize an important function, and the results were abysmal. In 2003, the VA paid a defense contractor nearly $300 million for a new system to track hospital supplies. It never worked and ended up endangering patients' health.

At Thursday's hearing, VA official Keith Predigo said the use of a computer program for "minimizing human intervention" is in line with a government-wide goal of Bush's. "Claims that are rejected by the automated process and require a manual eligibility determination will remain the responsibility of trained VA personnel," he said.

But members of Congress are properly skeptical of the plan, not least because the department has no backup. The new benefits go into effect Aug. 1, 2009, but the department will not require its contractor to prove "functionality" of its system until June 1. That leaves little time to fix snafus. Congress should not let a private contractor spin a telephone-menu tangle around one of its proudest recent achievements.

The Boston Globe