By Tom Philpott
Conceived in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal as a way for wounded warriors and their families to understand and receive benefits, the “eBenefits” website www.ebenefits.va.gov has become an online gateway of enormous value and convenience to two million registered users.
That still leaves a pool of 35 million eligible veterans and military community members wondering what all the “eBenefits” fuss is about. Robert Reynolds, a former Special Forces soldier and former national commander for Disabled American Veterans, is happy to explain.
As director of the Veterans Administration Benefits Assistance Service, Reynolds and staff spend hours every week, in partnership with the Department of Defense, brainstorming ways to make eBenefits 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, as well as families and survivors.
If a self-service website 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 said, but most qualify for the GI Bill or can use the guaranteed home-loan benefit.
Today 30,000 veterans a day use eBenefits to track progress on VA compensation and pension claims. When more information is needed, an email alerts a claimant a week or more before letters can. Every month 780,000 veterans use the website 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 smart phones and other mobile devices. But there’s so much more, Reynolds said.
Taking one month as an example, last July veterans used eBenefits 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 eBenefits 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 eBenefits with computer files holding personal and vet status information. Users find that most forms they call up when they apply for new benefits are automatically filled out 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 eBenefits. Users with smart phones can download an app showing every VA and Defense installation in their area, with full contact information, a feature prized by “snowbird” retirees who head south for the winter, Reynolds said.
When users are about to age into, or out of, benefit eligibility, or when benefits will be affected 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 should get an email 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.
Veterans, active duty members, Reserve and Guard members, their families and survivors are all eligible for eBenefits. Access is through www.ebenefits.va.gov. Users must be registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System and obtain a Defense Self-Service Logon. Those not in the reporting system should call 800-827-1000 and select option 7.
New recruits are being registered automatically, and eBenefits is the access point for the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record. By November 2013, every active-duty member will be required to register. Through eBenefits, they can access their official military personnel record. By next year they also will be able to get their full health records, Reynolds said.
The website 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.
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