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Opening Statement of Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommtitee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen:

Would you please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance?

The members of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee convene today to conduct an oversight hearing entitled, Addressing the backlog: Can VA Manage One Million Claims”?

Here are some basic facts that I would like take a moment to reflect upon today as we begin this hearing on the VA backlog. 

There are 23.5 million veterans living in America.  One thousand World War II veterans die every day. VA hospitals treated five million veterans last year, but over 500,000 non-service connected veterans were denied that care.  There are three million service-connected disabled veterans.  

And now, there are almost one million veterans waiting. 

They are waiting to have their claims and appeals processed.  They are waiting for compensation.  They are waiting for medical assistance and rehabilitation.  They are waiting to take care of their families. They are waiting for a nation to be grateful. 

I, for one, believe that they should not have to wait.  During the 110th Congress, I convened fourteen hearings on disability claims and appeals processing issues and this is our fourth hearing this year on the subject. 

Additionally, my colleagues in Congress did not believe our nations’ veterans should have to wait when they enacted Public Law 110-389 in October 2008—essentially mandating that VA modernize its disability claims processing system.  Congress supports and continues to monitor VA’s efforts to expedite claims, improve quality, update its rating schedule, and use the most advanced technology available.  We have authorized the hiring of additional benefits personnel and have passed more generous budgets for VA than ever before.    And still, the backlog grows and veterans wait. 

There must be a way to stem this tide.  VA requires a cultural and management sea change that can come about if it embraces the provisions of the law and looks to its stakeholders to inform its policies and procedures.  As Chairman of this Subcommittee, I believe we have given VA the tools and the authority it needs to take the necessary steps to bring about the transformation Secretary Shinseki has evoked since stepping into the leadership of VA.  I look forward to hearing about its plans to implement the claims processing improvements we outlined in the 110th Congress in P.L. 110-389, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 that should help in this regard.

I am optimistic that today’s witnesses can further direct us toward a way forward.  I regret the Hamster-wheel effect that two of the witnesses on the first panel have faced in their own efforts to secure the benefits and the assistance that they seek from their government.  I offer my apologies for all of the waiting. 

I know the American Legion, VFW, and DAV have worked diligently along with the other VSOs to address the disjointed practices that exist within VA that led to this growing backlog.  I am eager to hear from the AFGE and the newly formed Disability Compensation Advisory Committee and I put much hope in your work and its progress.  I also look forward to hearing from VA.  I know that your claims processing production has improved—I applaud you for managing the resources Congress has given you to make this improvement.  I also know that the 1 million claims figure reflects all of your inventory--not just compensation and pension and not just backlogged claims.  These facts notwithstanding, Congress, veterans and other stakeholders want to know what is VA’s strategy for handling a workload of 1 million claims in a 21st century manner. 

Finally, I thank VA and DoD for being here today to update the Committee on its progress in implementing Public Law 110-389 and the formation of the Interagency Program Office mandated by the NDAA along with President Obama’s VA/DoD Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record initiative. 

If we can accomplish the tasks already set in motion, it is my hope that VA will transform into a 21st Century, customer-focused system that can in fact process 1 million claims accurately and timely.  One where veterans and their families no longer have to put their lives on hold while waiting for the much needed assistance they deserve.

I now yield to Ranking Member Lamborn for his opening statement.