Conceived in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal as a way for wounded warriors and their families to understand and access benefits, the "e-Benefits" web portal has become an online gateway of enormous value and convenience to 2 million registered users.
That still leaves a pool of 35 million eligible veterans and military community members wondering what all the e-Benefits fuss is about. Robert Reynolds, a former Special Forces soldier and former National Commander of Disabled American Veterans, is happy to explain.
As director of VA's Benefits Assistance Service, Reynolds and staff spend hours every week, in partnership with the Department of Defense, brainstorming ways to make e-Benefits more valuable. Hired in 2009, in part to breathe life into the e-concept recommendation of the Dole-Shalala Commission for wounded warriors, Roberts immediately saw the potential to help anyone in service or with veterans' benefits, and families and survivors.
If a self-service portal could deliver information and benefits faster to the ill and injured veteran, "why couldn't we do it for any veteran and provide them that same level of access," Reynolds said. Not every vet is eligible for Vocational and Rehabilitation training, he reasoned, but most qualify for the GI Bill or can use the guaranteed home loan benefit.
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Today, 30,000 veterans a day use e-Benefits to track progress on VA compensation and pension claims through VA's eight-step process. When more information is needed, an electronic message alerts claimants a week or more before letters can. Every month 780,000 veterans use the portal to view their payment and reimbursement history, to confirm online what money is headed into their accounts and why.
These two most popular features now are accessible through smartphones and other mobile devices. But there's so much more, Reynolds said.
Taking one month as an example, last July veterans used e-Benefits to order, modify and instantly print or transfer 80,000 letters verifying eligibility for VA benefits; 27,000 letters affirming veterans' preference for civil service jobs; 24,000 letters verifying military service, and 3,400 letters verifying 100-percent permanent disability for military IDs to shop in base commissaries.
Monthly about 10,000 veterans, active duty members and Reserve and National Guard personnel use e-Benefits to print out or send to lenders copies of their home loan guaranty certificate of eligibility.
The automatic letters are available instantly to qualified users because of the integration of e-Benefits with computer files holding personal and vet status information. Users are delighted to find that most forms they call up to apply for new benefits get "auto-populated" with their name, address, date-of-birth and other personal information, which makes the process easy and usually error free.
Vets who entered service since the 1990s have access to electronic military records through e-Benefits. Users with smart phones can download a special app showing every VA and Defense Department installation in their area, with full contact information, a feature prized by "snowbird" retirees who head south for the winter, Reynolds said.
VA and the Defense Department use focus groups of veterans, service members, and family members to critique e-Benefits to upgrade features and introduce new ones.
When users are about to age into, or out of, benefit eligibility, or when benefits will be impacted by a change in status, the system sends reminders. For example, if a current service member with Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits will separate or retire soon, the member will get an electronic reminder that the option to transfer GI Bill benefits to family members must be taken before they leave active duty or the option is lost.
E-Benefits users, Reynolds explained, can get up to 65 different "early coms" messages like that, so they can take full advantage of earned benefits based on individual circumstances. One reminder recently added, for wounded, ill or injured members on active duty, advises them and Social Security simultaneously that they might be eligible for social security disability benefits.
Veterans, active duty members, Reserve and Guard members, their families and survivors are all eligible for e-Benefits. Access is through www.ebenefits.va.gov. Users must be registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and obtain a Defense Department Self-Service log-on. Those not in DEERS should call 1 800-827-1000 and select option 7.
New recruits are being registered automatically and they will have lifetime access given that e-Benefits is the access point for the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record. By November 2013, every active duty member will be required to register. Through e-Benefits they can access their official military personnel record. By next year they also will be able to access their full health records, Reynolds said.
The portal is such a powerful tool because it is jointly run and designed by VA and Defense Department as a one-stop shop for access of service-related benefits. A joint executive benefits committee oversees e-Benefits. Ultimate oversight is shared between the departments' deputy secretaries.
The portal went live three years ago but multiple features have been added every three months through partnerships with Tricare, the Veterans Health Administration, VA pensions and compensation, education services and many other offices.
E-Benefits grants two levels of access. Level one is limited to certain self-service features like obtaining an eligibility certificate for VA home loans. A veteran needs only to enroll in DEERS to register for basic access.
Level two access is the "premium e-Benefits account." For this veterans and family members need to verify their identification either by answering security questions online or through an "in-person proofing" visit to a VA regional office or Tricare service center.
Military retirees also can verify their identity online using their Defense Finance and Accounting Service log-on.
With a premium account, Reynolds said, users gain access to 45 self-service features for managing benefits -- for education, employment, health, housing, insurance or compensation -- and the number is climbing.