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Hearing Transcript on Personal Costs of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog Field Hearing.

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PERSONAL COSTS OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS CLAIMS BACKLOG



FIELD HEARING

BEFORE  THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS

OF THE

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS

FIRST SESSION


OCTOBER 9, 2007
HEARING HELD IN NEW WINDSOR, NEW YORK


SERIAL No. 110-51


Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs

 

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COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

BOB FILNER, California, Chairman

 

CORRINE BROWN, Florida
VIC SNYDER, Arkansas
MICHAEL H. MICHAUD, Maine
STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN, South Dakota
HARRY E. MITCHELL, Arizona
JOHN J. HALL, New York
PHIL HARE, Illinois
MICHAEL F. DOYLE, Pennsylvania
SHELLEY BERKLEY, Nevada
JOHN T. SALAZAR, Colorado
CIRO D. RODRIGUEZ, Texas
JOE DONNELLY, Indiana
JERRY MCNERNEY, California
ZACHARY T. SPACE, Ohio
TIMOTHY J. WALZ, Minnesota

STEVE BUYER,  Indiana, Ranking
CLIFF STEARNS, Florida
JERRY MORAN, Kansas
RICHARD H. BAKER, Louisiana
HENRY E. BROWN, JR., South Carolina
JEFF MILLER, Florida
JOHN BOOZMAN, Arkansas
GINNY BROWN-WAITE, Florida
MICHAEL R. TURNER, Ohio
BRIAN P. BILBRAY, California
DOUG LAMBORN, Colorado
GUS M. BILIRAKIS, Florida
VERN BUCHANAN, Florida

 

 

 

Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director


SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
JOHN J. HALL, New York, Chairman

CIRO D. RODRIGUEZ, Texas
PHIL HARE, Illinois
SHELLEY BERKLEY, Nevada
DOUG LAMBORN, Colorado, Ranking
MICHAEL R. TURNER, Ohio
GUS M. BILIRAKIS, Florida

Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.

 

       

C O N T E N T S
October 10, 2007


Personal Costs of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog

OPENING STATEMENTS

Chairman John J. Hall
    Prepared statement of Chairman Hall
Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member
    Prepared statement of Congressman Lamborn
Hon. Timothy J. Walz
Hon. Maurice D. Hinchey


WITNESSES

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,  Michael Walcoff, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations, Veterans Benefits Administration
    Prepared statement of Mr. Walcoff


American Legion, Department of New York, R. Michael Suter, Chairman, Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission
    Prepared statement of Mr. Suter
Lazos, Alex, Harriman, NY
    Prepared statement of Mr. Lazos
Orange County Veterans Service Agency, Goshen, NY, Anthony Zippo, Director
    Prepared statement of Mr. Zippo
Ryan, Christopher and Angela, Ellenville, NY, on behalf of Sergeant Eddie Ryan
    Prepared statement of Mr. and Mrs. Ryan
Senior, Eddie J., West Harrison, NY
    Prepared statement of Mr. Senior
Vietnam Veterans of America, Ned Foote, President, New York State Council, as presented by John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America
Wolf, Ted H., Pomona, New York, as presented by John Rowan, National President, Vietnam Veterans of America
    Prepared statement of Mr. Wolf


SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD

American Legion, Poughkeepsie, NY, Michael Tokarz, Legislative Council Member, statement
Rockland County Veterans Service Agency, New York, NY, Jerry Donnellan, Director, statement


PERSONAL COSTS OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS CLAIMS BACKLOG


Tuesday, October 9, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
Washington, DC.

The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:30 a.m., in New Windsor Town Hall, Town of New Windsor Justice Courtroom, 555 Union Avenue, New Windsor, New York, Hon. John J. Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.

Present:  Representatives Hall, Lamborn and Walz.

Also present:  Representative Hinchey.

OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN HALL

Mr. HALL.  Good morning.  Welcome to the field hearing of the House Committee of Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.  This is a field hearing—

VOICE.  Can't hear you.

Mr. HALL.  Welcome to the House Veterans'  Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs field hearing on the personal costs of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Claims Backlog. 

First of all, I'd like to ask everybody to rise, and Mr. Michael Tokarz of the American Legion Legislative Council to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance. 

[Pledge of Allegiance.] 

Mr. HALL.  A few preliminaries. 

In accordance with Committee Rules, I'll ask, please, that everybody turn off their cell phones and pagers.  I will do that myself, to set a good example. 

I'd like to welcome to the 19th District of New York my colleagues, Doug Lamborn, from Colorado, our Ranking Member on the Subcommittee; and Tim Walz, from Minnesota.

VOICE.  Speak up, please. 

VOICE.  Can't hear you.  And I got hearing aids. 

Mr. HALL.  I can try to talk still louder. 

This is Congressman Lamborn from Colorado, the Ranking Member on the Subcommittee; and Congressman Walz, from Minnesota, who have come here, so that we can conduct this important field hearing. 

First, I'd like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Committee.  I know the issues pertinent to the claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs are of utmost importance to you. 

On a personal note, as Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, it is a special privilege for me to conduct this hearing in my District, in the Town that my mother-in-law lives in, by the way; and an honor for me to be able to address the issues facing local veterans in or near their home towns. 

For our veterans who are testifying today, I know that you have endured a great deal in seeking disability benefits from the VA, and I thank you for sharing your experiences so that other veterans might not have to suffer the same result. 

The claims backlog of over 600,000 cases is very troubling.  The current waiting periods at all levels of the VA disability benefits system, from 177 days at the regional office, to 700 days at the Board of Veterans' Appeals, or 240 days at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, are all unacceptable. 

Five years of funding short falls have exacerbated the backlog and created unmanageable wait times.  This backlog is simply unacceptable, and the VA has shown little ability or interest in reducing the number of claims pending a decision. 

These veterans have mortgages, medical bills and tuition bills for their children's educations.  The bill collectors don't wait six months, two years or five years to collect.  You have to pay them every month. 

Ultimately, I believe the VA must meet the same standard, veterans should receive their claims decisions within a month. 

In the more immediate future, however, we must focus on the VA reaching a goal of 60 days to process a claim.  These veterans stood up for our country, when asked, and now it's our turn to stand up for them. 

Congress also has responsibilities to give the VA the tools needed to help achieve that goal.  Rather than saying "everything is under control," the VA needs to admit that there's a problem and tell us where we can make things better.  The VA must hire better trained staff; utilize new technologies; and reform the system so it truly works for the veteran, not against him or her. 

Despite the backlog, I firmly believe that this system is girded by a cadre of dedicated and professional employees who are committed to our veterans. 

I know that my office has a wonderful working relationship with the New York VA Regional Office that serves our District, and I commend the employees there for the fine work they do every day for our veterans. 

However, the New York City VA Regional Office performance on processing claims has fallen, for whatever reason, far behind the national average.  Currently, it averages 255 days to complete a claim, and has a pending backlog of 9,639; 20 percent higher than its goal of 7,952. 

Furthermore, the Regional Office accuracy rating is 83 percent, meaning 17 percent of veterans are getting thrown into the hamster wheel of the appeals process, which can take years to complete. 

I'm heartened by the fact that the fiscal year (FY) 2008 budget bills will provide funding for over 1,000 full-time employees throughout the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), to help with this overwhelming work backlog. 

I look forward to sending the bill to the President in the coming weeks.  However, I firmly believe that the only way to maximize the VBA's employees effectiveness and lessen the backlog is to give them the necessary tools and training to provide accurate ratings. 

As such, I look forward to receiving information on the VA's STAR training program updates, as recommended by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).  

As the home of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the 105th Airlift Wing of the Air National Guard at Stewart Airport, as well as Camp Smith, an Army National Guard Facility, we in the 19th Congressional District find that issues pertaining to the backlog hit especially close to home.  There are over 70,000 veterans living in the District.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have a significant impact on the District, particularly the West Point community. 

Sadly, West Point, which Congressman Lamborn, Congressman Walz and I had a helicopter tour of and a brief foot tour this morning, has had 55 graduates die in combat since September 11th, 2001. 

With a number of these graduates heading to a combat zone, the VA's ability to deal with future claims is especially important to our community, as well as to the Nation's ability to retain future military officers. 

The men and women who have suffered physically, mentally and financially for months and years, while waiting for their benefits from the VA, are the same men and women who stood up and served their country when they were needed.  Now they are made, it seems, to jump through hoop after administrative hoop just to receive the basic care and benefits they have more than earned with their sacrifice. 

Fulfilling our pledge to them, when asked, is the least we, as a grateful Nation, can do. 

The first panel of witnesses today will present testimony regarding the impact the extended waiting periods at the VA has had on the organizations that they represent. 

We will also hear the testimony of four veterans, from three different wars, who will discuss the impacts of long waiting times on their personal lives and financial well-being.  I look forward to their testimonies. 

I also would note that Ted Wolf, a Vietnam veteran battling prostate cancer, was scheduled to testify here today.  While we will hear his testimony, because of health problems, he cannot be here himself.  Ted and I have met on several occasions, and I'm praying for him and his family at this difficult time. 

From the VA, I'm looking forward to hearing what it is doing or intends to do to place appropriate resources in the New York Regional Office, what it is doing to both address the 600,000 plus claims backlog, and to reduce waiting times. 

I want us all to remain aware of the special privilege we possess in being able to devise the policies and administer the benefits for these brave men and women and their families.  There is real sanctity in this privilege.  We should always be mindful of whom we are serving. 

Before I move on to other Members, I would like to recognize several members of the audience.  Michael Tokarz, member of the American Legion Legislative Council, and Jerry Donnellan, the Veterans Service Agency Director for Rockland County, have provided written testimony for our record. 

Thank you. 

Nelson Rivera and Tom Myers, the Veterans Service Agency Directors for Dutchess and Westchester County respectfully, are here as well.  I want to thank them for helping.  And I thank all our County Directors for their work in helping New York Veterans. 

We are lucky enough to have two Directors of National Vetearns Service Organizations here today; John Rowan, the National Director of Vietnam Veterans of America. Thank you.  Good to see you again.  And Larry Shulman, the National Commander of Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. Thank you for being here, thank you for your service, as well, and for making the trip. 

I also want to thank Ron Touchy, Commissioner of Veterans' Affairs in the New York State Department of Labor, for attending.  George Basher, the Director of New York State Division of Veterans' Affairs.  In addition to his service to New York Veterans, Mr. Basher also serves on the Advisory Panel on Homelessness of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington.  Vitally important work. 

Norm Bussel, a POW from World War II and an advocate for veterans is here.  Thank you, Norm.  Mr. Bussel and his wife, Melanie, first helped Alex Lazos, who will testify shortly, file his claim with the VA.  Mr. Bussel provided compelling testimony for this Committee in Washington, and I'm pleased to see him again. 

Thank you to Supervisor George Green, of the Town of New Windsor, for letting us use this facility today.  And Supervisor Novack, from Mount Hope, for attending. 

I also want to thank Arlene Randell, Michael Blythe, Richard Hody, John McDonald, Patrick Mangan, Jonathan Randell and Jessica Marina for helping us get all of this setup.  And thank all of you for attending.

You probably are aware, but just for those who have not been to a Congressional Committee or Subcommittee hearing, this is a public meeting in the sense that the public can watch and listen, but it's not public comment.  So, just for information's sake, we have a full schedule of business that we need to do in a short time.  We have witnesses who have already been called.  And in case anybody came here unbidden, hoping to give testimony or to speak to the Committee, what we're doing is opening the record for five business days to accept written testimony from any veteran here who is not on the panel, and to revise, extend and receive additional statements and remarks. 

I request unanimous consent that the record remain open for five business days. 

Without objection, so ordered.

I would now like to formally welcome our Ranking Member, Doug Lamborn, to the District, joining us all the way from Colorado's 5th District, home of the Air Force Academy.  There's a big game coming up in two weeks, by the way.  I now recognize him for his opening statement. 

Thank you for being here.  I know you're just as committed to fixing the VA's claims backlog as I am.

[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. DOUG LAMBORN

Mr. LAMBORN.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  And I want to thank you for inviting me here to New Windsor, to hear from witnesses on the personal costs of the claims backlog. 

Before I begin, I also want to recognize Larry Shulman, the National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the U.S.A. Thank you for your attendance today. 

Also, I want to welcome John Rowan, the National President of Vietnam Veterans of America. 

So I look forward to working with both of you in the coming year. 

As everyone is aware, the VA's compensation and pension backlog has reached an epic and regrettable level.  The over 400,000 disability compensation claims in the backlog are not just marks on an inventory sheet, but represent a real veteran or their family who is waiting patiently for VBA to adjudicate their claim in an accurate and timely manner. 

In reading the testimony of the second and third panel, it seems to me that there is much work to be done in reaching this human level. 

I am also not convinced that if we had the same hearing in my home State of Colorado, that we would not find other veterans with similar problems of those veterans who are with us here today in New Windsor. 

VA has set a goal to decide a given claim in an average of 125 days.  While more than four months strains the meaning of the word prompt, it is not unreasonable, given the complexity and demands of the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) and other administrative requirements, but we need the VA to just do it. 

I know that we in Congress bear some responsibility for all this complexity.  And I'm always looking for ways to help improve the bureaucratic process while safeguarding it for veterans.  That is why my staff and I have consistently asked VA to help us help you. 

To the VA I say, send us legislative proposals and solutions for all of the challenges that are listed in Mr. Walcoff's written testimony. 

While I acknowledge that there is no silver bullet that will eliminate the backlog, I believe we can take immediate vital action by passing my bill, H.R. 3047, the "Veterans Claim Processing Innovation Act of 2007."  This would be an important first step to helping solve problems in the VA's claims process.  H.R. 3047 will bring VA's compensation and pension system into the 21st Century by increasing accountability and leveraging technology at the VBA.  This bill would improve the accuracy and speed of benefits claims. 

While I agree that VBA is making some improvements in terms of timeliness and needs to be adequately staffed, I am concerned that quality may be sacrificed in the name of speed. 

Mr. Chairman, I know that we can both agree that after our two hearings; this session on the Board of Veterans' Appeals and the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, that accuracy is a problem system wide.  One way to improve this is by increasing training and accountability at VBA, something that is included in H.R. 3047, by requiring an independent agency to review and certify VA's training programs.  I would rather have a veteran wait just a little bit longer for an accurate and fair rating, than have them receive their rating quickly and be wrong.  It is imperative that all claims are done right the first time, and I know that improving training is the first step towards this. 

I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for promising to hold a legislative hearing on H.R. 3047 later this month. 

I want to thank all the witnesses who have come here today for the testimony they will be giving.  And I want to thank my good friend, Chairman John Hall, for inviting me here this morning. 

And I yield back to the Chairman. 

[The statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you. 

Now for an opening statement, we'll recognize a Congressman who I believe is the highest ranking enlisted person to serve in the United States Congress, retired Sergeant Major, Mr. Tim Walz, from Minnesota.

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. TIMOTHY J. WALZ

Mr. WALZ.  Thank you. 

Well, thank you.  And thank you to the Chairman Hall. 

For the gentleman in the back, that was—that was 24 years in the artillery, so you and I can have that conversation of not hearing back and forth. 

But I want to thank the Chairman for holding this hearing.  I want to especially thank him for his passionate voice on this issue of bringing this to Congress.  Not a day goes by, not a hearing goes by where Congressman Hall doesn't express the desire to make this system better and to do whatever is possible to serve our veterans.  And for that I'm thankful. 

And for Ranking Member Lamborn coming to us from a very important District, he may have one of the largest number of veterans living in his District of any place in the country, with the Air Force Academy being there and Fort Carson being located right there too, so he brings a passion to this. 

And I think the one thing you're going to see on this day and the things that you hear about the—the breakdown of communication in Congress, you can rest assured that this Committee and those of us up here, there is no partisanship on this issue.  We don't even talk about bipartisanship on this.  This is non-partisan. 

This is a critical issue, not only for the moral responsibility of taking care of our veterans, but for our national security interests of making sure our younger generation understands that when they sign up and they serve this Nation, they're going to receive the promises that were given to them, and we're going to follow through with them. 

So to both of these gentlemen, I thank them for their passionate voice.  And you can rest assured, this is one area where I think the people's business is being done.  I'm proud of the work we're doing, but we're sure not willing to rest. 

This issue of the claims backlog—and as—as Chairman Hall indicated, when I got to Congress, I did not know this at the time, but the House Historian came up to me and he said, Mr. Walz, in the 228 years of Congress, you are the highest ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress as a Command Sergeant Major.  And I told that at one of these hearings, and it was with the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) of the United States, and one of their members stood up and said, it's about damn time then that we get that done. 

So I'm proud to serve with these gentlemen.  I'm proud to understand.  I sat where many of you are.  I want to thank all of those people here from the veterans service organizations (VSO's) and those working with veterans. 

The one thing you can be assured of on this issue, there may be differences on how to accomplish what we're after, but there is absolute unanimity in how we are going to address this issue and the importance of it. 

And those of you in those veterans service organizations, who have spent decades, literally decades, fighting for what you know is right, I'm here to tell you that this Committee and this Congress that's—that's taking on these issues of veterans' benefits understand that we in Congress and the Veterans' Affairs Committee and the Veterans Affairs Department needs to understand that they are advocates for you.  Not adversarial.  And we need to change the culture of that.  We need to understand that what we're trying to do here is what this country wants. 

There is no issue that unifies this Nation more than the care of our veterans.  You cannot find anyone that does not want to do what's right or want to deliver those services.  And it's incumbent upon us that sat here, and those of us delivering the services through Veterans Affairs to figure out:  Do we have the resources necessary to do that?  Do we have the systems in place to deliver that?  And are we providing constant oversight to make sure that that happens? 

And those that are here, I say it every time we have these testimonies, but one thing you can rest assured is we're partners in this.  We're simply looking to make the system better. 

And when I go to the hospital that's in my State, it's one of the four polytrauma centers located throughout the country, at the Minneapolis VA, that facility is providing the highest quality of care of any medical facility in the world, and they are treating the most grievously injured soldiers with traumatic brain injuries, and multiple amputations coming back from our current conflict.  And I'm up there with a mother from Michigan, who is sitting there with her son, who is a double amputee and has traumatic brain injury, and she tells me the only thing that gets her through every day are the angels that serve on that floor of that VA facility, and that's the nurses and the doctors that take care of him. 

So all of us understand, we're in this together.  We're trying to improve the quality of care. 

Many of us find it unbearable that we're asking our veterans to wait on this.  And many of us find it unbearable that we're falling into a situation where we're pitting one group of veterans before another.  And that situation is very difficult, because there is not a veteran or a supporter alive that doesn't understand triage and doesn't understand that those most in need of care need to go first.  But it's very difficult for me, when I've got a First Sergeant from the Korean War who is sitting out in Rochester, Minnesota, and is being told he has to wait in line for his injuries that he received in combat defense of this Nation, at a time when they're telling us we can't— we don't have enough.  We don't have enough care providers to get this soldier in and to get him taken care of. 

So this claim backlog, this situation that just strikes at the heart of many of us as being just a grievous injustice to our—to our veterans, and we cannot allow it to be a faceless bureaucracy, and blame it on the bureaucracy, or whatever. 

As Congressman Lamborn said, and I applaud him every time he says this, to cut through this bureaucracy, to streamline it, to keep the safeguards in place, but, for goodness sake's, give the benefit of the doubt of presumption to the veterans.  And not the other way around.  That these people who served our Nation, and were injured in defense of it, are now being asked to try and prove that they were injured in many cases. 

And my colleague, who is not here today, but Congressman Phil Hare from out in Illinois, always talks about, and I think it's an intriguing idea, the assumption is when you file your tax returns, that you're signing on there that you're telling the truth.  And what they do is, they come back and audit, if you're not telling the truth.  So you can file your tax return, get it in, get it entered and get a rebate, out of the millions and millions that are being filed, within a ten-day period now.  Why don't we have the presumption that many of these people who are coming in, the presumption is that they're telling the truth, and we'll go back and audit.  So if there's two percent committing fraud, 98 percent of our veterans are being made to wait up to 700 days.  So somewhere in there we can change our assumption, change that paradigm of how we're looking at it.  And give those who are trying to administer this, these VSO's and these County Veterans Service Officers (CVSO's) who are out there, trying to do the best they can, and they're working inside our State administrations of veterans are having an incredible burden put on them. 

So I thank the Chairman and thank the Ranking Member for having us here.  I'm looking forward to this testimony. 

And, as Congressman Lamborn said, you could replicate this in Colorado, you could replicate this in the First District of Southern Minnesota, and you would hear the same stories, with the same concerns.  And I think it's time for us, as to understanding our responsibility, as now is the time for change, not just talk. 

So I yield back. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Walz.

Now I'd like to ask our first panel to join us at the witness table. 

Our first panel includes Anthony Zippo, Director of the Orange County Veterans Agency; Ned Foote, New York State Council President for Vietnam Veterans of America; and John Rowan will be joining him for any possible questions that are directed at that organization; and R. Michael Suter, Rehabilitation Field Coordinator for the American Legion. 

I'll remind our panelists that your written testimony has been submitted for the record, so you'll be each recognized for five minutes.  There's no need to read the whole thing, if you don't want to.  You can just give the highlights or whatever you think is most important for us to hear.  Your written testimony is already part of the record. 

Please limit your remarks to five minutes, so that we have sufficient time for follow-up with questions, once everybody has provided their testimony. 

Mr. Zippo, we'll go ahead and recognize you for five minutes.

STATEMENTS OF ANTHONY ZIPPO, DIRECTOR, ORANGE COUNTY VETERANS SERVICE AGENCY, GOSHEN, NY; NED FOOTE, PRESIDENT, NEW YORK STATE COUNCIL, VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA, AS PRESENTED BY JOHN ROWAN, NATIONAL PRESIDENT, VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA; AND R. MICHAEL SUTER, CHAIRMAN, VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION, AMERICAN LEGION, DEPARTMENT OF NEW YORK

STATEMENT OF ANTHONY ZIPPO

Mr. ZIPPO.  Thank you, Chairman Hall and the other Members of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for giving me the opportunity to speak for our veterans here in Orange County. 

We have approximately 27,000 veterans in this county, including 1,300 Iraqi veterans. 

Last year Orange County received $27 million from the Veterans Administration for its disability and pensions. 

As a county veterans service agency, our staff has the first-hand experience with the issues facing veterans today.  One of the most frustrating aspects of assisting veterans with disabilities or their survivors, is having to explain that the Veterans Administration processing time could take up to a year, or more.  Sometimes three months, sometimes six months, sometimes nine months.  There's no rhyme or reason to these claims.  There is no explanation why it should take so long. 

We are taught by the Veterans Administration and Veterans Organizations to submit completed claims.  Even—often, even when our evidence is submitted, issues are not addressed and the claims are delayed.  Delaying the claim may also delay the veteran's medical care, education, vocational rehab, tax exemptions and other benefits that the veterans need. 

Very often, these are the people who, due to serving their country, are no longer able to support their families or otherwise return to their former lives. 

There was a family stationed here at West Point.  This family had, I believe, eight children.  The officer was in the Reserves and being deployed to Iraq.  He was an engineer at civilian life, making a good salary.  Of course, being deployed changed all that.  West Point didn't have the quarters for the family, causing them to live off base.  The American Legion had to take this family under its wings and help house and feed them. 

Many of our veterans are reservist or National Guard activated to Federal duty.  When they are deployed, they leave behind their families and their jobs.  Many return with injuries, physical and emotional, and are unable to assimilate back into their former lives due to the post service disabilities. 

The delay in the adjudication of these claims put their lives on hold.  Monetary benefits and vocational rehab benefits granted in a timely manner could make a more seamless transaction back into civilian life. 

There are some veterans who, because of the delays, are getting deeper into financial debt.  They are paying for their medical care, and they do not receive any benefits from the VA until their claim is settled. 

In December of 2005, we assisted a remarried widow with an application to have her Dependency and Indemnity Compensation restored.  This entitlement was based on her husband who was killed in action in World War II.  Her benefits were not restored until March 2007, and only after we advised her daughter to contact the mother's Congressman, which is Congressman Hall's office, and the Congressman contacted the VA.  During the 15 months the claim was pending, the widow became gravely ill.  It appeared she might pass away before she received her benefits.  This was especially frustrating because it was noted in the VA records on May 11th, 2006, that her benefits should be administratively restored. 

Now to defend the Veterans Administration.  Their staff in the regional New York Office was close to 300 about three years ago.  Now it is around 100, due to hiring freezes, plus their workload has increased because of the war in Iraq.  Now they are starting to hire again.  Many—however, many of the people are retiring, taking their experience with them.  VA claims processing is not an easy job.  It takes years of working with these claims and training to get the experience to rate a good claim. 

Now, two examples of Iraqi veterans.  An Iraqi veteran was discharged May 31st, 2006.  The VA received the claims of several conditions on June 1, 2006.  It was noted on the claim that he was an Iraqi veteran.  The claim was still with the pre-determination team at least until March 5, 2007, as per the American Legion.  On May 7th, 2007, the VA granted one of the claimed conditions ten percent for tinnitus.  All other claimed conditions are deferred and still pending after 15 months. 

Another example is an Iraqi veteran with two periods of active duty was discharged December 10, 2005.  The VA received a claim on May 18, 2006, as per the American Legion.  The VA pre-determination team, as of December 4, 2006.  The claims filed in the front office was continued—continued under deployment.  As per the American Legion, on April 16, 2007, the claim was with the pre-determination continued development.  The claim is now 16 months old. 

Thank you. 

[The statement of Mr. Zippo appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Zippo.  We'll come back to you for questions. 

 Now we'll recognize Mr. Foote for five minutes, please.

STATEMENT OF NED FOOTE AS PRESENTED BY JOHN ROWAN

Mr. FOOTE.  Thank you.  I'm Ned Foote.  I'm President of the New York State Council of Vietnam Veterans of America.  My testimony has been confiscated by our National President. 

Mr. HALL.  Excuse me. 

Mr. FOOTE.  Following the chain of command. 

Mr. HALL.  Sir, excuse me.  Could you speak as close to the microphone as you can.  And loudly. 

Mr. FOOTE.  Can you hear me now? 

Mr. HALL.  It's the people in the back that need to hear you.  So thank you. 

Mr. FOOTE.  I'm here to represent our veterans in New York State that also has a backlog of claims.  One gentleman in the back here just told me this morning, he's going on four years of waiting for something to be done. 

So I'm basically here to help answer questions that you may have. 

I'll turn it over to our National President. 

Thank you. 

Mr. ROWAN.  Mr. Chairman, and Ranking Member Lamborn, Mr. Walz.  Good to see everybody again. 

Unfortunately, because of other business, we were unable to produce a written testimony.  And we will—I will be reading some testimony in the next panel, which will give you a more personal view of what happens to an individual when they come into this backlog and other delays. 

But the real question here is—is not just the new veterans either.  I mean, one of the things that needs to be clear is, unfortunately, a lot of us older veterans are coming into the system now, many years after the fact.

The nature of warfare, since Vietnam, and to some extent even before, but certainly in Vietnam and in the Desert, in the Gulf War, first Gulf War, and even today in the new Gulf War, we are seeing and running across things that are unusual in warfare, I guess, except in these modern times perhaps it's becoming the norm, and that is people become disabled not only because of injuries inflicted upon them during combat, but from being exposed to toxic substances, in our case, in Vietnam, Agent Orange, in the new case all these gases and pollution and all kinds of parasites and other kinds of things in the desert that don't flourish until many years after somebody has left the service. 

And so while it is true that the new—that the VA was certainly not ready to service 60,000 wounded veterans coming back from the war, they also are not ready for the thousands of diabetics that are being released into the system now, 30, 40 years after the fact. 

And I keep using myself as the classic example.  Until I got diagnosed with diabetes, and then, of course, neuropathy and some other aspects of the secondary conditions to the diabetes, and until the VA finally agreed the diabetes was related to Agent Orange, I was never service connected for anything.  I, thankfully, got through the war unscathed, but it caught up with me 40 years later.  This is happening to many of the Vietnam veterans; that is prostate cancer, diabetes, lung cancer, several other kinds of cancers that we're getting in our fifties and sixties and now have to file claims. 

There are 200—250,000 Vietnam veterans that have already filed claims of diabetes with the VA.  We think, by the way, that that number is about half of what it ought to be.  And one of the things we're trying to do is do massive outreach to the private-sector medical community, so that they can inform their veteran clients about what it is they're entitled to.  And we're in the process of doing a massive outreach in that regard.  And we're trying to work with some of the drug companies, etcetera, who talk to doctors on a regular basis. 

We have also just formed what we're calling—we're about to form what we're calling the Veterans Health Council, made up of various medical groups, such as physicians and nursing groups and other kinds of folks, along with the various advocacy groups for certain diseases, such as the American Diabetic Association, the Prostate Cancer Awareness Groups, and things like that, because we need to pull these people together to get them to understand what it means to be a veteran and how it impacts on their health. 

We had a big meeting with one of the major drug companies that deals with diabetic drugs.  And their diabetic educator, who has been working on the program for seven years, had no idea that there was a connection with veterans, with Vietnam veterans. 

So this is really what's compiling the backlog, that and the fact that, in a perverse way, it's really strange, that many of the Vietnam veterans who worked for the VA are now retiring, and they're not being replaced, haven't been replaced in many years, and so all of the VA Regional offices, except for maybe a couple, are way understaffed. 

And, of course, Congressman Lamborn, you were right on when we talk about the fact that this is a horrible, antiquated system that needs to be upgraded and brought into the 21st Century with computerization. 

Thank you. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Rowan.

Mr. Suter, you're now recognized for five minutes.

STATEMENT OF R. MICHAEL SUTER

Mr. SUTER.  Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of our National Commander, Marty Conatser, and, of course, our Department Commander, Bill Burnett, I thank you for this opportunity to speak on behalf of VA claims backlog and its impact on our veterans economically and physically. 

My formal statement has been submitted, and I'm going to take this advantage to hit it from another angle and not even worry about that. 

As a Veterans Affairs representative and a past County Veteran Service Agency Director, my most difficult task was to tell a veteran the claim was denied and now we must appeal the Regional Office's (RO's) decision.  The first question that comes up by that veteran is, what am I supposed to do for the next year, or more, while I wait on a decision? 

In FY 2006 the VBA issued 39,076 decisions.  Ninety-five percent of those involved comp claims.  During the 11 months following that, the first 11 months FY 2007, the VBA issued more than 37,000 decisions.  Only 41 percent of the RO decisions were affirmed.  Twenty-one percent of the RO decisions were overturned.  Thirty-five percent of the regional office decisions were remanded. 

Further development, emphasis on the production continues to be the driving force at the RO, at times taking priority over training and quality assurance. 

In my official statement, I listed five different veterans, actually four different veterans and a widow of a World War II veteran, who are having a lot of difficulty trying to get what is owed to them. 

The claims backlog—and this is something that we don't talk about very often.  We say, okay, it's going to take a year to get your claim approved or denied, or whatever it's going to be.  That decision also affects veteran's entitlements to other benefits.  Those benefits, free healthcare for your service-connected disability; both rehab and job replacement; special adaptive housing.  Automobile grants; ten additional points for preference on a civil service desk; additional allowance for dependents; and Champ VA medical coverage for dependents. 

A veteran's nightmare, when a claim must be appealed, is not that of the war, but rather will the bank defer my mortgage payments for the next year and a half?  Where do I get my next meal for my family?  How can I get clothes and other things, school supplies, for my children, so they can go to school? 

There's enough blame to go around, so, you know, we don't need to point fingers.  This isn't a political problem, in any stretch of the imagination.  It's not a Democratic or Republican issue.  This is an American challenge to take care of those who have taken the time out of their lives to stand up and be counted. 

Dating back to the Civil War we've had the same issues over and over again.  We might call it something different, rather than shell shock, it's post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or whatever.  The bottom line is since the Civil War we've had these problems.  They've not gone away.  War is terrible.  It takes a terrible tragedy on the body.  And we know that for a fact.  While some have had to pay the ultimate sacrifice, others have sacrificed their bodies and their minds to ensure our way of life. 

Please don't just throw more money at the issue.  Ensure the staffing needed is provided.  Ensure the RO'S have time to train.  And please drop the quotas from all that they do, which puts nothing more than one part of the VA against the other.  In this case, the VBA against the RO.  The VBA wants production.  Trouble is when they put a quota on the regional office, that forces that production.  The VBA is trying to cut back on remands.  It's kind of hard for them to do it without blaming the RO's for their quality of production.  It's just a very difficult thing.  We need to all get together. 

The VA practices, or at least talks about, a "One VA."  We need to ensure that that VA does everything that our veterans need them to do. 

It is an extreme disservice to veterans, not to mention unrealistic, to expect the VA to continue to process an ever increasing workload while maintaining quality and timeliness with less staff. 

I'm a service-connected veteran, and I'm not mad at the VA, although I do get a little frustrated from time-to-time with them.  The VA is not the enemy of veterans.  Inadequate staffing levels is the enemy of veterans.  Pressure to make quick decisions is the enemy of veterans.  All of which results in an overall decrease in quality of work and more appeals. 

A standard concern the VSO's have stated their concerns here in the Washington District.  And I know that you had the opportunity to listen also to the American Legion testimony about two weeks ago, I believe it was now. 

Today you're hearing from veterans young and old alike.  I thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for conducting this field hearing, coming at home out here in your own home, to the trenches to listen to what veterans have to say. 

Thank you, sir. 

[The statement of Mr. Suter appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Suter.

Thank you all for your testimony.

I'll just start the questioning from up here.  We'll each have five minutes to ask questions of each panel. 

I would begin by asking Mr. Zippo, you mentioned that the New York office was down from, a staff of 300, to 100.  Is that claims processors? 

Mr. ZIPPO.  Yes, sir. 

Mr. HALL.  Okay.  What do you think would be adequate for the caseload that's coming through there; restoring that back to 300 or—

Mr. ZIPPO.  That I'm not sure of how many.  But if they change the system—the Congressman mentioned triage. 

Mr. HALL.  Right. 

Mr. ZIPPO.  Again, when we send completed claims in, if it went through a triage team, they can be finalized right there and sent right out for adjudication. 

Mr. HALL.  That makes sense. 

Would you think that it would help if the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or VBA had a requirement when they see a claim, a multi-faceted claim, to rule on all facets of that claim the first time they see it? 

Mr. ZIPPO.  Yes, sir, that would really help a lot. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you. 

Mr. Foote and Mr. Rowan, whoever wants to take this question, you talked about 250,000 Vietnam veterans filing, in the last year is it? 

Mr. ROWAN.  Over the last few years.  We first got, I believe in 2003, when the Secretary finally signed the ruling that made presumption—made diabetes a presumption for Agent Orange exposure, that it was related to their service in Vietnam.  And that is a classic example of something that can speed up the system. 

If we—I've worked as a service rep also, and if we had—the ability for the service reps to file a claim that they would note was ready to rate, and for those in the system know what that means, it's ready to go.  And if I have a diabetic and I have a DD-214 that shows they were in Vietnam, that case is a slam dunk, ready to go.  It should not be waiting six months to get adjudicated.  It should take six days to get adjudicated.  

The raters ought to be—the triage people ought to see ready to rate across the board by the service rep saying, here it is, here's the evidence, here's the doctor's note, here's the DD-214.  Send him his check.  I mean, there's just no point to this waiting and waiting and waiting. 

And the other issue you raised, Congressman Hall, about multiple problems, sometimes that is an issue.  And in some cases we do need to get a doctor from the VA to verify, in fact, that the disease may be an issue. 

One of the problems sometimes we see is they wait to rate all of the cases.  Instead of saying, for example, if I'm a diabetic and I've come in with retinopathy and neuropathy, as well as, you know, all these secondary conditions.  If they're worried about the secondary conditions, give me my 20 percent right away for the diabetic.  And then we can talk about the rest of them. 

We need to get the system upgraded—but, frankly, all of this is useless, and hiring 100, 200 more raters in New York would be nice, but their system is so horrible because it's paper driven.  You have to literally wait for a claim file to go from one desk to the next, instead of working off a computer system, instead of—I actually took some training in what they're going to call the Virtual VA.  And I think that was three years ago.  They haven't even come close to starting that.  And that's the real problem. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Rowan. 

I have a question for Mr. Suter, before we run out of time here. 

In your testimony, sir, you mentioned the practice of brokering claims from regional offices with high claims volumes, to regional offices with low claims volumes. 

Do you feel that this is an effective practice, or indicative of the need to increase staffing at those offices with the high volumes? 

Mr. SUTER.  I believe it's probably a combination of both, sir.  Those that are farmed out, compared to those that are decided here in New York, because they're from different locations, different raters, you may get different decisions.  

And if you've got to argue a case that was sent to Philadel;phia, as to arguing a case that is in your own home town here in New York, makes it much easier for the veterans, makes it much easier for the raters, the VA, everybody concerned. 

One of the problems with farming out, and it's not a problem with just farming it out, if you look at every regional office in this country you're going to find out that the rating standards vary.  There's no standard for a broken arm.  There's no standard for an elbow or a shoulder.  There is, if you look in the book, but, unfortunately, the degree, the percentage assigned, whether it's a 10 or a 20 or maybe because there's just a little bit of a hint of something might be there, we'll give him a 40.  You go to the next regional office, they won't.  They'll keep him at 20.  There's no consistency in rating in this country. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, sir. 

My time is up right now, even though I'm Chairman.  In the interest of staying on schedule, I'll hand this over to Mr. Lamborn for five minutes.

Mr. LAMBORN.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

I have a question for Mr. Zippo, although, Mr. Rowan, if you want to do a follow-up on this, you can, and it's because both of you are or have been veterans service officers.  

What can Congress do to make your job work better? 

Mr. ZIPPO.  I would like to see some more funding, because we get no funding from Congress at all for training. 

I know there's a bill that's been passed in Congress already to fund training and outreach.  Well, I know it's held up in the Senate right now.  But we would love to see something like that. 

Mr. LAMBORN.  Thank you. 

Mr. Rowan?

Mr. ROWAN.  I have to harp on the electronics.  The ability to be able to sit in front of my computer, talk to my client, enter the data that's necessary into a system that would create the form, and be able to transmit it electronically to the VA, and have them accept that.  And then once it got to the VA, also be able to circulate it in an electronic file system. 

I've been retired now for over five years from the City of New York, where I was working in the Comptroller's Office.  We—I reviewed 1500, 2000 page contracts daily on a virtual system.  I could pull that contract up, it was tabbed like a file cabinet.  I could pull any one of those file pieces out.  I could review it.  Not only that, ten other people at the same time could review the same file. 

I don't see why we can't do that now.  I know we can't go back and retroactively do the millions of files.  But given the new veterans coming home, we should be able to start with them at least. 

Mr. LAMBORN.  Thank you both. 

Mr. Chairman, I yield back. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Lamborn. 

We'll now recognize Mr. Walz for five minutes. 

Mr. WALZ.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  And I thank you all for your testimony.  And as I said, I think we could replicate this, because it's the same things we hear, but I thank you for bringing these.  And I think it's very important to listen to each of you and put a face to this.  Let's not forget that this is a zero sum proposition we're in.  No matter how good we get, we can always get better, because if one veteran isn't served, it's all of us, and that's an injustice.  So I appreciate the work that you're doing on that. 

Mr. Suter, I thought you brought up some very good points on this.  And I think that Mr. Suter was hitting on something that has to happen.  And I think this possesses the potential to be very healthy for this country to have a national dialogue on how we allocate resources and what we do for our large bureaucracies, or for, in this case, those organizations that provide vital services.  There are great employers out there.  There are great organizations, non-profits, faith based across the spectrum that are caring and doing things for our veterans. 

The issue that each of you know here is, is that as this war ends, and most of us in this room, and I said those wearing the hats that have been there understand, as realists, that we will probably face this again in the future.  It's just the nature of the world, be realists on this.  We hope for the best.  We work for the best.  We prepare for the worst. 

And in doing this and in the disservice that we do to veterans, this system continues to build on itself and continues to get worse.  And what I would say is the national dialogue we're going to have to have is:  How do we put the resources there?  And I can tell you, I don't think this is all about putting the money at it.  I do believe that's a large part of it.  But as a school teacher, I'm the tightest person you'll ever find.  I'm going to take the pencils from this hearing and everything when we're done.  That's the way we work.  Because we may need them. 

But the issue on this is for the first time in 22 years the Independent Budget, and those that are familiar with that in here of the veterans service organizations, putting out "X" amount of veterans are going to need "X" amount of care, therefore Congress should budget "X" amount of dollars, and then stand guard over that like a hawk, to make sure that it's spent correctly.  This is the first time in 22 years we've got to that point.  But I fear that if we just put money at this, without fixing the innate, underlying problems that are there, we are going to frustrate the American public.  Because the American public is willing to use the treasurer of this Nation to take care of our veterans, but we have to get it right. 

There's just a couple of questions that I've got.  I want to first go to Mr. Rowan, because of his expertise in this electronic side of things.  Nothing frustrates us more than every time we have these hearings—I was one of you, the 26 million, that received the letters on the breach of security on that.  You'll be happy to know that since that time, there's been 107 more breaches since, on different numbers. 

We've had numerous hearings in this Congress, and the level of frustration that I'm experiencing on this is almost unimaginable.  One of the reasons I'm so frustrated is I represent the Mayo Clinic area of Minnesota that has the Mayo Clinic, and they tell me that the electronic medical records, the VistA System by the VA, is the best in the world.  That nobody does this better.  They do it better than Johns Hopkins, Mayo and all that.  Why are we unable to get this transferred over?  Why are we unable to make the same?  Do you have any take on that, or is it the same as me and you can't understand it? 

Mr. ROWAN.  I have—I have no idea, to be honest.  I just don't.  Apparently they've had problems in trying to create a system.  I think one of the problems, and I worked in procurement, and I think one of the problems with the Feds is there's a tendency upon agencies to say, oh, we know it better than everybody.  So we're going to create our own.  There's probably off-the-shelf software that they could probably go out tomorrow and buy, or rent, or whatever it is they need to do to create this system.  This is not brain surgery.  There's an awful lot of corporations that do this on a daily basis. 

As I said, 5 years ago I was working in an office that was able to scan 1500 page contracts in a matter of minutes because they had a high speed scanner, which then allowed everybody to access these things. 

I'd also like to jump on Mr. Suter's issue here, about relevancy from region to region, from office to office.  Because I worked in the New York VA Regional Office my personal claims go through Newark.  I filed, not too long ago, and they finally agreed, after a long battle back and forth, that they added my hypertension to my—my list of disabilities.  However, they gave me a zero.  Everywher