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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Good afternoon and welcome everyone.  This oversight hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will now come to order.

Throughout the past year, the Members of this Subcommittee, as well as the Full Committee, have heard from VA representatives on various initiatives that have been instituted in order to fulfill the Secretary’s goal on disability benefits claims for 2015.

VBA implemented national initiatives within its regional offices, to including Challenge Training, Quality Review Teams, Skills Certification Testing, Simplified Notification Letter, and Fully Developed Claims.  

VBA also rolled out new technologies in the form of the Veteran Benefits Management System and several other electronic projects, as well as a new processing model featuring segmented lanes and cross-functional teams.  All along, VBA indicated that significant support and training from VBA central office would be critical in this rollout.

On top of these changes, in April of 2013, VA announced that all cases pending in excess of one year would be completed by the conclusion of Fiscal Year 2013. 

Based upon this new push, VA instituted many months of mandatory overtime for its employees.  

While there are general concerns on whether VBA employees were able to issue decisions of high-quality within the expedited time-frame, there are also concerns that many of these “oldest-claims” were, in fact, highly complex.  

Regional Office employees have previously reported that claims processors would pass over difficult cases, and would routinely decide so called “easy” claims first in order to meet production goals and maximize workload credit parameters.  Thus, it would stand to reason that many of these two-year old and one-year old claims, decided in the past quarter, constituted a challenging workload.

And today we will hear about a focused issue, which ties into the VA’s various initiatives, and which highlights the clear necessity of uniform Central Office support and thorough employee training…today’s focus is upon the complex claims that are routed to the special-ops lanes at the Regional Offices, to include large multi-issue claims, as well as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, and claims involving special monthly compensation, just to name a few.

While VA reported in November of this year that complex claims, which take extensive time or require special handling, only constitute 10% of VA’s workload, these claims require highly competent, educated, and experienced attention.  Importantly, decisions rendered in complex claims often have a tremendous effect upon the lives of these veterans.

Within VA’s “Strategic Plan Refresh” for Fiscal Year 2011 through Fiscal Year 2105, the Department of Veterans Affairs noted no fewer than THIRTY times that VA’s strategic plan is “results driven,” and I quote, “We will be measured by our accomplishments, not by our promises.”

So today, we want to hear accomplishments----what is going on in this high-stakes, highly specialized, claims processing environment?   How has employee training focused upon the development of these issues?  What is working? What is not working? 

Also, we want to hear about the focused investigations of the VA Office of Inspector General, who look at specific complicated claims on an annual basis within the Regional Offices.   Reviews of VA OIG reports, as well as recent veteran testimonials, are alarming.

In the past four years, at least nineteen Regional Offices have been inspected by OIG on a second instance.   Of those, more than half saw a decrease in claim processing accuracy with respect to Traumatic Brain Injuries… This means that the reports indicate that VA OIG’s second visit to ten Regional Offices evidenced more errors than the initial visit. 

With respect to temporary one-hundred percent disability claims, while improvements were made, half of the offices inspected still could not process 50% of these claims correctly on their second inspection.  There is no other word for this, but simply “unacceptable.”

At this time, I would like to welcome our witnesses.  We will have three panels today.

Currently seated include the participants in Panel One.  They include Mrs. Lauren Price, United States Navy, Retired, accompanied by Mr. James Price, also United States Navy, Retired, who are here on behalf of “Veteran Warriors.” 

To Mr. Price’s left sits surviving spouse Ms. Bettye McNutt, accompanied by Mr. Glenn R. Bergmann, Partner at Bergmann & Moore, LLC.

After the conclusion of Panel One, we will hear from Mr. Sherman Gillums, Associate Executive Director for Veterans Benefits with Paralyzed Veterans of America; Mr. Ronald Abrams, Joint Executive Director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and Mr. Zach Hearn Deputy Director for Claims with The American Legion.

Finally, in the third Panel we will hear from Mr. Tom Murphy, Director, Compensation Service, with the Veterans Benefits Administration, accompanied by Ms. Edna MacDonald, Director of the Nashville Regional Office. 

The third Panel will also host Ms. Sondra F. McCauley, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Audits and Evaluations with the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, who will be accompanied by Mr. Brent Arronte, Director of San Diego Benefits Inspections Division.

Additionally, the hearing record will include written statements from Disabled American Veterans, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, the Armed Forces Foundation, and Ms. Sulin Schafer, wife of Air Force veteran Errick Schafer.

With those introductions complete, I thank you all for being with us today and I now yield to our Ranking Member for her opening statement.