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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

The Committee will come to order.

Good morning everyone.

Welcome to today’s full Committee hearing, entitled “Expediting Claims or Exploiting Statistics?: An Examination of VA’s Special Initiative to Process Rating Claims Pending Over Two Years.”

As I initially stated when this initiative was first announced, and as I will reiterate throughout the hearing today: although this new approach sounds promising, we must monitor it closely to ensure that it is good policy rather than just good P.R.

I will admit that I was very frustrated by the fact that both Secretary Shinseki and VA benefits officials testified before this Committee several times in the weeks just before the initiative was announced, yet there was no mention of this initiative to this Committee as a means to address the backlog.

I’d like to take this opportunity to emphasize that an open dialogue between VA and this Committee about the backlog and other issues affecting the Department is critical.

I hope VA will take this into consideration as it continues to develop new strategies to address the disability claims process.

Turning back to the initiative that we are here to focus on today, I’d like to emphasize that VA must not shift resources and manpower away from processing new claims just to clear out older ones.

Every veteran deserves a thorough, fair and timely evaluation of their claim, regardless of when it was filed.  This policy should not interfere with that concept, and I hope that it does not in practice.  However, the Committee has heard several concerns from stakeholders in the process, namely that RO employees lack guidance on how to carry out some aspects of the initiative.

For example, it is currently unclear to many in the field how claims processors will follow up on provisional ratings that have been issued one year from now.  Concerns have also been raised that VHA cannot schedule required VA examinations within the required time frame to have these oldest claims adjudicated by the June deadline.

Further, there are some concerns that this initiative involves some statistical manipulation.  For example, when a provisional rating is issued, the controlling end product is cleared.  If a veteran submits additional evidence within the one year provisional period, this evidence is assigned a new end product, with the date of claim being the date the new evidence was received, not the date that the underlying claim it is associated with was first filed.  Although clearing and entering end products in this manner will ultimately make the statistics on the backlog look better, they do not get to the heart of the matter, which is how VA plans to improve its workload management processes in the future.

Finally, VA has stated that of the claims it has completed as part of the initiative thus far, many were able to be finally adjudicated rather than issued provisional rating decisions.  This begs the simple question of why these claims were not adjudicated prior to the initiative, and again, what VA is doing to better address its workload management practices to prevent situations like this from arising in the future. 

Despite these concerns, I do applaud VA for acknowledging that waiting a year, two years, or even longer is too long for our nation’s veterans to receive their earned disability benefits. 

 VA has stated that to date, they have processed approximately 22,00 of the nearly 42,000 claims identified for the initiative, and that they believe they are on track to meet their target deadline next month for adjudicating these claims.

VA meeting one of its self-proclaimed deadlines would be a welcome change in our continued oversight of the backlog of disability claims.  I look forward to hearing more about this initiative at today’s hearing.

I’d like to thank Under Secretary Hickey and Deputy Under Secretary Rubens for being here today.  I would also like to thank all of those who submitted statements for the record.

I now yield to our ranking member, Mr. Michaud.