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Opening Statement of Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York

 

I would ask everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance – flags are located in the front and in the rear of the room.

I would first like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee.  I know the challenges presented by the growing backlog at the Board of Veterans Appeals and at the AMC are troubling for us all.  Making the administrative appeals process better and quicker for our veterans is our shared priority and I thank you for joining me in helping to find workable solutions.

As many of you know, the Board of Veterans Appeals, established in 1933, is designed to provide the veteran with an opportunity to appeal a decision issued by one of the 57 Regional Offices (RO) of the VA.  No one disputes the importance of this step in the claims process, but unfortunately it has become more foe than friend to our veterans seeking a decision on an RO appeal.   Moreover, it seems to be an unspoken belief held by many veterans and their advocates that given the variances in RO level decisions, an appeal to the BVA is almost a necessity.

However, appealing an RO decision presents many challenges for our veterans.  With a current backlog of over 39,000, the average length of an appeal filed with the BVA is an amazing 761 days. This inefficiency is only exceeded by the outcome of these long waits – a 71% denial rate by the BVA.  Also, although BVA claims a 93% accuracy rate, the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims sets aside or remands over 76% of cases appealed, indicating a much lower accuracy rate in reality.  It is clear from reading the BVA’s annual report to Congress that these percentages may not be based on the same statistics. 

There are many reasons for the current 40,000 case backlog at the VBA.  First, as pointed out by several veterans’ advocacy organizations in their testimonies–an entity, such as the BVA, which employs a system of rewards based on the quantity of work inputs rather than the quality of those work inputs, will soon become an organization that adopts the principle of quantity over quality, consciously or unconsciously.  

Additionally, unless the VA standardizes the training process for its raters, this often subjective system will continue to yield inequitable results.  Most claims raters indicate that their major source of learning was on-the-job training.  As the preliminary findings of the Disability Benefits Commission indicate, over 50% of raters believe that they are ill-equipped to perform their jobs and over 80% of raters and VSOs believe there is too much emphasis placed on speed relative to accuracy.  Also, as the recent IDA Report (Analysis of Differences in VA Disability Compensation) on variances in VA’s disability compensation recommended, the VA undoubtedly needs to:

  • standardize initial/ongoing training for rating specialists;
  • increase oversight of rating decisions;
  • develop and implement metrics to monitor consistency in  adjudication results; and
  • increase oversight and review of rating decisions and improve and expand data collection and retention. 

And, as pointed out by the IDA Report, the current STAR program is insufficient to promote consistency in ratings across regional offices, as very little action is taken on any trends found at regional offices.  Among other things, I want to hear what the VBA intends to do to improve this program as well as an update on its Expedited Claims Adjudication Initiative efforts.

The increased workload at both the AMC and the BVA is not lost on this Committee. 

The most recent FY07 figures indicate that there are more than 18,300 remands pending at the AMC and about 39,206 appeals awaiting adjudication at the BVA.  Moreover, the BVA expects to receive up to 48,000 appeals through the course of 2007.  As such, any increase in productivity has not been able to keep pace with the increase of claims being sent to the BVA. 

I am heartened by the fact that the FY 08 Budget Resolution allowed and the FY08 MilCon-Va Appropriations bill will provide funding for 1,000 FTEs to help with the growing backlog.  This fact notwithstanding, I firmly believe that the only way to maximize VBA employees’ effectiveness in lessening the backlog is to give them the necessary tools and training to provide accurate ratings.

To be clear, it is not my intention simply to point out the shortcomings of the BVA or the AMC.  I think we should all abide by the underlying and stated principles of the entire VA system, which is to provide a non-adversarial system for awarding our veterans the benefits they have earned.  We need to begin to see ourselves, the VA, Congress, VSOs, and advocacy organizations alike, as partners in fulfilling this mission. 

I also firmly believe that with the expected surge in filings by returning OIF/OEF veterans, the VA, as the “gateway” for and the creator of the record that forms the basis for appellate review, should amplify its role in the benefits claims adjudication process to get our veterans off the appeals “hamster wheel”.

I hope to hear testimony that will yield recommendations that are consistent with producing the best outcomes for our veterans appealing RO decisions.