Drive IT and VA capability modernization through digital transformation, the refreshing and decommissioning of software and infrastructure, and an OIT business value framework that is designed around customer-driven requirements.
Lighthouse: VA’s Veteran — Centered API Platform
The availability of web and mobile applications for Veterans helps them quickly and conveniently connect with and use VA services to manage their health care and benefits. These applications help give Veterans seamless digital access to VA wherever they are — but VA wants to do more.
Lighthouse is VA’s open Application Programming Interface (API) platform that creates a single, secure front door to VA’s data for both VA and our partners. APIs are key to how data is accessed and controlled across the web. From leveraging single sign-on when logging into a website to automating the sharing of data from one service to another, they help us connect in ways that make our lives simpler.
Lighthouse began by using the same high-quality APIs as VA.gov and making them useful across VA and for third-party developers. We’re partnering with developers who want to make apps that solve the problems Veterans care most about and giving them secure access to VA data to help them do it. Lighthouse hosts all of VA’s APIs so developers can come in, get access to the data that they need to power their applications, and then share those applications with Veteran users. It’s just one example of how OIT is strategically sourcing products and services that our Veterans need — and doing it by creating a modern developer experience that is on par with top private sector companies.
VA’s Developer Portal is a place for developers to easily learn about, access, and build on APIs available at VA. We continued iterating on the portal by talking to our users and learning their pain points and needs, shipping updates to production daily, and adding APIs. We have also added functionality, such as the ability to sign up for any of the APIs via self-service in a development environment. This self-service access lowers the barrier to entry and lets API consumers begin using VA APIs right away.
So far, more than 250 developers have signed up to test VA’s APIs, with more getting access every day. As we continue to add APIs to Lighthouse, we hope that talented developers from across the industry will partner with us to create more mobile solutions.
New VA.gov Improves Veteran Experience
VA redesigned and streamlined the VA.gov site so that Veterans can more easily find the information they need. Since its launch, the new VA.gov has served over 20 million unique users. After the project’s completion in November 2018, the revamped site experienced an increase in customer approval and a surge in user engagement, resulting in dramatically improved data on site usage (data as of Dec. 2019):
- Eleven million unique logins in DSLogon, IDme and MyHealtheVet — an increase of 278 percent
- Digital disability compensation application form submissions rose 27 percent
- Digital pension application form submissions rose 59 percent
- Digital pre-need burial application form submissions rose 91 percent
- Digital medical appointment scheduling transactions rose 57 percent
- Patient cancellations in VAR decreased 75.35 percent
- Claims views rose 572 percent
- Overall Customer Satisfaction Scores of all VA webpages rose 9 percent from 52.9 to 57.6. Scores on redesigned pages rose even higher to 66.3 — a 25 percent increase
In addition, VA received an “A” grade for writing quality on its online resources from the non-partisan Center for Plain Language, which specifically cited the new VA.gov’s resources for suicide prevention as examples of gold-standard digital communication.
According to Mr. Charles Worthington, OIT’s Acting Chief Technology Officer, “We don’t just say the site works better. It’s backed up by numbers. Our overall customer satisfaction score went up by five points — the biggest increase for a Federal agency.” The new VA.gov is making it easier for Veterans to access the agency’s most popular services, and the team will continue to make further updates and changes as the user population grows.
First Steps in DevOps: Adopting a Product Line Management Framework and Structure
As we embrace the culture and practices of a Development Operations (DevOps) environment, we are focusing on the evolution of several aspects of our organizational process and structure. One way we’re beginning to do this is by migrating toward a Product Line Management (PLM) framework and structure to support DevOps. PLM is a strategic model focused on consolidating systems and projects that share business strategies, objectives, and customers within a common “product line.” By aligning our workstreams to these product lines, we gain efficiencies in infrastructure, automation, and deployment and improve our ability to work collaboratively within OIT and with our business partners and end users.
Product Line Management in DevOps will promote coordination between our teams and our stakeholders, involving business customers, end users, development teams, and operations teams in every step of development and operations from product inception to product sunset. This framework brings the customer focus back to the team and improves our ability to empathize with our end users, which in turn improves our results. Though we will have many separate product lines, we will be grouped within product line portfolios and unite through them as a single team with a shared goal.
We know that DevOps necessitates an IT mindset that encourages communication, collaboration, integration, and automation among each stakeholder involved in a product’s lifecycle. We also know that OIT’s product portfolios and complex infrastructure often call for rapid response situations where segmented groups can focus attentively on their specific challenges and overcome them. That is where the responsibility framework and our guiding principles in DevOps shine. By empowering accountability at the product line level, we ensure a dedicated, consistent and knowledgeable team that provides meticulous care and continuous innovation.
VA Makes Progress on Appeals Modernization
There are more than 18.2 million Veterans who need to access the care and benefits they’ve earned, yet who have been burdened by the process of retrieving updates on their claim decisions. With the tool, Veterans can see the status of their claim decision, make updates, request additional review, and more, all from a website that is easy to use and simple to navigate. As Mr. Christopher Given, a member of the development team, put it, “A tool like this is increasing the trust that Veterans can feel toward VA. It’s VA being upfront with them, saying, ‘We haven’t forgotten about you.’”
And the Benefits Appeals Status tool is just one of the ways that VA has been working toward satisfying the requirements of Section 3 of the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017: The Comprehensive Plan for Processing of Legacy Appeals and Implementing the New Appeals System. The Act — while also requiring an overhaul of VA’s current appeals process and providing Veterans and their families with increased choice in handling claims decision appeals — outlines specific areas of concern within VA, such as claim resolution options and the issue of slow or backlogged reviews.
VA re-examined the way it approaches the entire appeals process, which included implementing new options like the Status Tool, increasing its overall accountability, and working toward digital transparency. The process overhaul promises continued adherence to the Act’s requirements and further improvements to internal processes across the enterprise. VA is focusing on implementing the new appeals system, processing pending legacy claim decision appeals, improving processing time within the new system, and monitoring the system implementation through measurable goals
VA Piloting New Telehealth and Suicide Prevention Programs
As part of VA’s continued focus on preventing Veteran suicide, OIT partnered with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Telehealth Program in Wichita, Kansas. Together, OIT and VHA are piloting a new high-touch, high-tech way to help Veterans in distress: a VA Video Connect face-to-face video consult specializing in mental health.
Ms. Lyn Dickerson, Solution Delivery Endpoint Engineering, said of the partnership, “To properly serve those at risk for suicide, we need collaboration, innovation, and the ability to offer them a personal connection more than ever.”
The video capabilities build on VA’s Telehealth Suicide Prevention Program, which uses home telehealth data to monitor and respond to Veterans in mental or emotional distress. Since many of those at highest risk for suicide receive inpatient mental health care, they are enrolled in the three-month telehealth monitoring program prior to discharge. Now, in addition to receiving home telehealth monitoring devices, if a Veteran doesn’t have a mobile device of their own, VA loans them an iPad. This allows VA health care providers to maintain an even stronger and more personal face-to-face connection. The iPads also offer Veterans another point of access to reach VA health care providers as well as the mobility to connect to providers no matter where they are.
“We know that the risk of suicide is highest during that first week following discharge from inpatient care, so we enroll them in the telehealth program before they leave facilities. Being able to now offer Veterans this face-to-face video telehealth connection capability is a tremendous benefit,” said Ms. Melicia Jordan-Yette, Telehealth Program Manager for VHA’s Home Telehealth/Telemedicine service offerings.
Although comprehensive evaluation of the pilot has not yet begun, health care providers believe that the video capabilities are making a difference. Ms. Jordan-Yette said, “Our providers report that face-to-face video connection is very impactful for Veterans. They need a personal connection in a time of crisis, and now, thanks to our partnership with OIT, we are deploying and refining enhanced tools to help them.”
VA Video Connect Powers Tele-Counseling
When the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA) Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service (VR&E) wanted to offer Veterans an upgraded, high-resolution, 508-compliant tele-counseling option for accessing VR&E services, they partnered with OIT to deliver VA Video Connect. Since its launch, Veteran usage of VR&E’s tele-counseling increased by 200 percent.
Mr. Kevin Scott, VR&E’s Assistant Director of Operations, said “Since the December launch, we’ve averaged over 1,000 tele-counseling appointments per month, versus the 200-300 per month we saw in the past using a different platform.” VR&E leveraging VA Video Connect is one example of VA’s efforts to modernize and improve customer service by providing Veterans greater flexibility in how they access services.
VA SQUARES Up in the Fight Against Homelessness
For some Veterans, having no place to call home is a grim reality — a reality VA cannot accept. VA and OIT’s Account Management Office are taking proactive steps to change this. By collaborating with VHA, AMO is developing strategies for leveraging technology to help combat the complex issue of Veteran homelessness.
SQUARES, or Status Query and Response Exchange System, is one of those solutions. By entering unique identifiers such as the individual’s name, date of birth, and social security numbers into its web interface, SQUARES helps staff quickly retrieve reliable, detailed information about a Veteran’s status and eligibility for homeless programs.
Veterans previously needed to submit a form to a VA Medical Center to inquire about their eligibility for homeless programs. This process was cumbersome and paper-based, delaying much-needed access to programs Veterans had earned and placing the responsibility on the Veteran him or herself.
The latest update to SQUARES allows VA Homeless Program grantees and other external organizations to apply for SQUARES access, streamlining eligibility. This partnership empowers community organizations to help Veterans connect to VA programs. It also reduces the number of hours spent by VA employees processing paper forms to confirm Veteran eligibility, resulting in a much-improved customer experience.
Benefits Intake API Reduces Veterans’ Claims Processing Time
As part of VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s commitment to improving customer service, OIT continues developing fresh tools that reduce claims application and processing time to streamline the benefits process for Veterans. Benefits application programming interfaces (APIs) are like electrical sockets that connect many different consumer devices to one power — or in this case, data — source. The Benefits Intake API and Benefits Claims API represent two of the many APIs currently available through VA’s Lighthouse API program.
The Benefits Intake API accepts claim documents in PDFs and passes them digitally to mail processing vendors for uploading to VA’s Centralized Mail Portal. Claims Assistants then enter claims in the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), allowing claims to be processed five to six days faster than those submitted via paper mail.
The Benefits Claims API lets organizations submit eligible Veteran claims electronically, allowing the API to automatically establish the claims in VBMS, reducing processing time by about 10 days.
GitHub: Embracing A Modern Tool for Collaboration and Agile Product Development
Collaboration, automation, and modern tools are fundamental elements of OIT’s new DevOps approach. One tool in our DevOps toolkit, GitHub, embodies these principles and is proving to be indispensable to developers, product managers, and IT project teams.
GitHub is an open-source version control system that OIT is using as a software-as-a-service option for project planning and oversight. GitHub helps product and project management teams review changes, discuss problems, and identify potential solutions. GitHub’s additional features, including pull requests and issue tracking, facilitate real-time collaboration.
Thanks to this tool, developers can collaborate and contribute to product development teams on day one, eliminating lost time while waiting to obtain VA network access. GitHub is interoperable with other tools, like Jira, Jenkins, TravisCI, and CircleCI, to deploy software to staging, test, and production environments. For example, GitHub can be configured to alert an engineering team’s Slack channel every time someone makes a new pull request requiring a code review.
Taking advantage of tools like GitHub is one way OIT is facilitating a DevOps approach and collaboration across the enterprise.
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