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Opening Statement of Hon. Harry E. Mitchell, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Arizona

Thank you all for coming today.

For years, the Veterans’ Benefits Administration has experienced problems maintaining adequate accuracy and consistency data within its ratings system.  The purpose of this hearing is to evaluate what the VA is doing to fix these problems.  Their ability to keep accurate records is essential to ensure the quality of veteran disability ratings, now and into the future.

Let me first thank Congressman Space, who has quickly become a leader in working to address this issue. He and Ranking Member Brown-Waite took the lead in assembling the first panel.

The disability rating system has been an issue of serious concern since 2002, following an eye-opening GAO Report.  In January of 2003, the GAO designated the VA’s disability program as high risk.  This designation resulted from concerns about consistency of decision making and accuracy of records.

This subcommittee is aware of the department’s efforts to correct these issues, but more has to be done.  I am concerned about the wide variations in average compensation per veteran and grant rates that persist between states.

After years of recommendations by the GAO and the VA Inspector General, the VA has failed to collect and maintain an accurate database.  That must change because our nation’s veterans cannot be forced to wait any longer.

According to the VBA’s Systematic Technical Accuracy Review, or STAR, accuracy of regional office decisions vary from 76 percent in Boston to 96 percent at the Fort Harrison regional office.  This variation is troubling.  More troubling is that STAR only looks at accuracy, and completely ignores consistency of decisions.

The VA has implemented a new data system called the Rating Board Automation 2000.  This system collects more information, but it continues to set road blocks for analyzing claim denials for disabilities like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury.

PTSD and TBI are complicated and often misdiagnosed disabilities.  Because of their nature, rating a veteran with these disabilities is somewhat subjective.

We understand there are variances between states in claims decisions, and it is to be expected. But the subjective nature of the ratings process does not do our veterans justice.

We are sending the wrong message to our nation’s veterans.  We are saying that even though you served courageously for your country, you better live in the right state and hire a professional when filing for disability benefits.

This is unacceptable.  Just last week we heard from the Veterans’ Disability Commission on the necessity to provide equitable treatment for all veterans.  But this is not the case today.

Aside from maintaining accurate records, we need to make sure that claims officers nationwide receive the same training.  This training must be focused on the intricacies of each disability imposed on any veteran, young and old.

I know that we can work together in a bipartisan way with the VA to ensure that our veterans get the best and most fair benefits available.