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Opening Statement of Hon. Harry Mitchell, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

First, thank you to Chairman Hall and the Disability and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee for working with the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to convene this hearing. 

For too long, the spotty record of the Department of Veterans Affairs has led veterans and observers to view the Department as the worst kind of bureaucracy – massive, aloof, and unaccountable.  Today, we have the opportunity to address a number of bureaucratic shortcomings and take a step toward a more personal, accessible, and accountable VA.

Some mistakes are already being addressed.  I am encouraged that the VA is taking steps to compensate the widows of veterans whose benefits were wrongly docked when their spouses passed away.  I look forward to receiving a status update from the VA.

However, we have now learned that the shredding of documents may only be the tip of a very large iceberg.  VA’s Inspector General tells us that in July 2007, the Detroit regional office had a “mail amnesty” during which employees could turn in unprocessed mail and documents without repercussion.  Detroit regional office employees produced almost 16 thousand items.  Sixteen thousand!  Among these were 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/ or pieces of medical information.  None of these claims or documents was in VBA information systems or associated claims files.  The IG was told by VBA regional directors that there were amnesties at other regional offices as well.  Obviously we are going to have to get complete information from VA about these amnesties, but it is impossible not to be shocked by the numbers from Detroit.  Shredding documents, or burying them in the bottom drawer, is a breach of trust by VA.  Whether that breach of trust comes as a consequence of inadequate training or negligent or deliberate behavior, Congress must not and will not tolerate it.

We will also hear testimony about data tampering that inaccurately reflected claims processing speeds at regional offices.  A decision by management to lie about performance indicates creeping institutional decay that must be rooted out before it further erodes quality of care.  The VA must restore integrity to its claims system and redeem the trust of the veterans it serves. 

I am eager to hear a detailed account of these issues from the Inspector General’s office, and I trust that the VA will provide a candid explanation of what went wrong and how they will ensure it never happens again. 

I am also eager to hear from the VSOs about the impact of these failures on the veterans’ community, and from the American Federation of Government Employees about the effectiveness of VBA policy.

Mistakes like these simply need not happen.  They are avoidable as they are awful, and they rob us of time that could otherwise be spent planning outreach to veterans, easing the transition from soldier to civilian, or constructing a 21st century benefits program.  But, I am heartened by the vision, dedication, and know-how that Secretary Shinseki brings with him to the task of serving America’s veterans, and I am hopeful the VA can avoid similar pitfalls under his leadership.

Thank you to our panelists for appearing today.  I look forward to working with you to achieve the openness, accountability, and action that veterans deserve from the VA.