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Opening Statement of Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Colorado

Thank you Mr. Chairman for recognizing me. I thank you for holding this hearing on the claims backlog and how it will affect the returning servicemembers from the global war on terror.

Before I begin, I would like to offer my congratulations to you Mr. Hall, for your appointment as chairman of this subcommittee.  I look forward to working with you in a bipartisan fashion as we fulfill our number-one priority – doing what is right for our veterans and our nation.

Today we are here to talk about the effect of OIF and OEF veterans on the VA claims process. 

I am more concerned about the effect of the VA claims process on these wonderful veterans.

Since the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, more than 150,000 claims have been filed by OIF and OEF veterans.  In part, this is a positive response to VA’s increased outreach, but now we have a responsibility to process those claims and care for these veterans.

I believe the first step toward improvement for these veterans is to improve the overall VA claims processing system.  The backlog of compensation and pension claims is over 632,000 -- about 15,000 more than a month ago, according to VA’s own weekly report.

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 and other administrative requirements. 

Now we need VA to “just do it.”

I know that we in Congress bear some responsibly for all this complexity.  I look forward to asking Mr. Aument what we could do to help improve the bureaucratic process, while safeguarding it for veterans.

Mr. Chairman, both the budget views and estimates from the committee’s majority and the minority recommend 1,000 new hires for VBA over the President’s request for 457 new compensation and pension staff.  In two years, when they are all hired and trained, they will indeed make a difference.

The conventional approach of increased hiring is entirely appropriate; VBA has over the past several years experienced personnel shortages. 

We must also explore some innovative ways to tackle this challenge that may even have faster payoffs than new hires. 

That is why Committee Republicans this year have recommended funding for innovative pilot programs to address the backlog.

We have recommended funding for a pilot program to explore the feasibility of intergovernmental and VSO partnerships with VA in the development of compensation and pension claims.

This pilot would build on positive findings from a 2002 project conducted between VA’s Buffalo, New York, regional office and the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs. 

Within six months of their collaboration, the state veterans’ division was developing claims in partnership with VA.  Decisions for the region’s veterans came faster and accuracy improved.  This sort of innovation holds great promise.

Access to Veterans Benefits Administration regional offices can be difficult for many veterans. That is why we also recommended funding a pilot program for mobile claims offices.

VBA staff members in mobile offices would provide outreach, help veterans file their claims, and gather “ombudsman” feedback and resolution for veterans.

Mobile offices helping veterans with their claims could speed up the claims process by improving communication and access for veterans.

To take advantage of the potential offered by technology, we recommend funding to explore a rules-based adjudication system.  Software could potentially decide simple claims accurately, quickly, and consistently, so that developers can focus on the complex ones. 

For our newest veterans returning from , , and elsewhere in this global war, we must achieve a seamless transition from the military into the VA system.  It is apparent to me that a seamless transition will help erase that backlog, because it increases the system’s overall efficiency.

We need fully interoperable electronic health records between VA and DoD, an electronic DD Form 214, military separation physicals that can also function as VA disability physicals, and a disability rating process that provides consistent ratings.

What good is a separation exam and health records from DoD if the veteran has to repeat the whole process over again with VA?

Mr. Chairman, I am sure you agree, no veteran should have to wait six months or a year for their claim to be decided -- and then endure an appeal that adds another year or two.  For some veterans, this is not mere inconvenience; it is financial and potentially emotional disaster.

Every one of these claims is an American veteran and his or her family awaiting a decision. Every veteran deserves to have their claim adjudicated quickly and accurately!

One thing is certain.  If we do not fix this problem now, our legacy will be an intolerable backlog regrettably endured by this generation of veterans, and inexcusably bequeathed to a future generation. 

I firmly believe no one in this room wants such an outcome.

I want to thank the witnesses for their service and their testimony, and I look forward to our discussion today. 

Mr. Chairman, I yield back.