Jul 19 2007

Paper Be Gone

With a centralized approach to forms, Veterans Affairs is just a signature away from paper-free processes.

By the end of the summer, the Veterans Affairs Department expects to begin using digital signatures. It’s a step that will radically change a central process at the department: the handling of forms.

Now, all forms, whether for internal use or for veterans and their families, can be filled out online, but then they must be printed, signed and passed along to the appropriate VA official for action “because we don’t have digital signatures,” says Mary Stout, chief of forms, publications and records management for the Veterans Health Administration. She spoke this month at a briefing in Washington sponsored by Adobe Systems.

But VA expects to begin using digital signatures before fall, Stout says, which will take it one step closer to eliminating paper-pushing for its thousands of forms. VHA alone has 650 forms.

As recently as 2001, when Stout helped hatch the plans for a central portal of forms (www.va.gov/vaforms), VA had no forms available online. It had a handful of “fillable forms” — forms that VA users and veterans could fill out online — but even those were not usable because they did not comply with Section 508 accessibility requirements, Stout says.

Ultimately, using Adobe’s intelligent document platform, the department converted all its forms to fillable Portable Document Format forms. An intranet hosts forms for VA use, and forms for veterans can be found on the VA forms Web site, which is the third most visited of all VA sites, Stout says.

Stout says a chief reason behind the choice of Adobe tools for the VA project was that the department would be able to leverage the company’s free filler and reader applications. “We wanted something that had a free filler app,” Stout says, because there were more than 200,000 employees in the field who would need to use the forms.

Currently, VA provides simple PDF forms, but the department wants to move to using wizards that are friendlier for visitors and will walk them through the process using a series of questions, she says. Ultimately, the user could still print the data out as a form.

There’s really no option for the government not to provide, at minimum, fillable online forms, Stout says. “Who’s got a typewriter anymore?”

Proof Is in the Savings

In all, the department estimates that the move to online forms is saving about $1 million annually, but an explicit example details the costs savings for the VHA, based on its stationery ordering and printing needs.

The 172 VA medical centers all must get stationery orders approved by Stout’s office and printed through the VA Publications Service.

There is a set of approved stationery products, and the individual hospitals and VHA organizations can order custom versions. Previously, they had to send forms with the order information filled out and also provide a sample via overnight delivery. Someone in Stout’s office then entered the data from the form into a central database and physically walked the job order and sample across the street to the publications office, which then designed the stationery before shipping the design on disk overnight to a printer.

Now, a VHA office that needs stationery fills out an order form online, selects its stationery item from a dropdown menu and then provides the custom content on the form, says Jeffrey Pace, a printing specialist with the VA Publications Service.

There’s no more “sneakernet” between VA offices. The turnaround on an order has dropped from 14 days on average to one, not including the shipping of the stationery items from the printer, Pace says.

The cost savings is in the $100,000 ballpark for 1,000 orders, based on no longer printing and stocking forms, no longer shipping samples and files overnight, and no longer rekeying the custom details, Pace says. He thinks that the recaptured time that lets employees focus on other work makes the $100,000 estimate “very conservative.”