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

The Committee will come to order.

Good morning everyone.  Welcome to today’s Full Committee hearing on a topic that is not a new one for this Committee, namely, needed improvements to the disability claims processing system.
 
As of this week, VA had nearly 900,000 pending claims, with over 70 percent pending for longer than VA’s targeted processing time of 125 days.  Recently, VA has rolled out its “transformation plan” as a means to address the growing backlog of claims.  Pursuant to Merriam Webster’s dictionary, “transformation” means the act of changing in composition or structure.   

Similarly, “plan” is defined as a detailed formulation of a program or action.  However, what we have seen from VA so far does not amount to a significant change in the culture of the organization, nor has VA provided a very detailed formulation of its plans for moving forward.

Although it is my hope that VA is truly committing to changing the culture of the department.  Most of what we have seen so far consists of repackaging old initiatives with new Power Point presentations and impressive buzz words.

Speaking of buzz words, VA has repeatedly stated that it plans on accomplishing its transformation plan by focusing on “people, process, and technology.”  Our purpose today is to focus on the first of these three elements – people.

Although much emphasis is placed on the process and technology components, I believe that the “people” component may be the most important.  There are thousands of men and women who, on a daily basis, work through the growing backlog of claims and their efforts should not go unacknowledged.  Nonetheless, the more people VA hires to process claims, the worse the department’s productivity is.  

Indeed, as the first chart shows, in 1997, the average VA field employee processed 135 claims per year whereas in 2011, that number had dropped to 73 claims per year.  Further, as the second chart shows VA has nearly three times as many field employees to do the work now than it did fifteen years ago.  One would think that working fewer cases per employee would result in higher accuracy rates…but accuracy is stagnant, and as the budget has grown exponentially.  Unfortunately, so too have processing delays.

As I have stated many times before, there are many people – myself included – who are losing patience as we continue to hear the same excuses from VA about increased workload and increased complexity of claims.  

Let me give everyone an example from VA’s own budget books:  I quote, “the effect of the military drawdown on VA’s claims process is marked not only by a large volume of claims being received, but also by increasing complexity of those claims;” “as a result of the pre-discharge counseling being given to service personnel… veterans have been claiming more conditions on their initial applications;” “instead of the traditional
two to three disabilities per claim, regional offices are dealing with 10 to 15 issues per claim.”

I could go on, but does this sound familiar to everyone? It should, because what i just read to you was from VA’s February 1994 budget submission.  VA has and will encounter complications along the way.  However, VA’s demonstrated history shows its inability, or refusal, to forecast problems and anticipate its needs and the only people paying a price for this failure are the veterans.  The time for excuses is over.

So, Under Secretary Hickey, we are here today to have an honest discussion about the people who make up VBA –  from file clerks to RO directors to VA central office management, and on how you intend to transform this workforce through better accountability and workload management practices.  

I recently had the opportunity to travel to the Baltimore Regional Office.  I was able to observe new employees’ Challenge Training. I also learned more about the station enhancement training that the Baltimore Regional Office will soon undergo.

Although proper training is important, I’d like to reiterate that it is not enough.  VA also needs to remain focused on accountability and better workload management practices. For example, one of the words we hear most when VA is called before us is “Nehmer.”  

Nehmer, a class action lawsuit that requires VA to prioritize certain Agent Orange presumptions – did significantly add to VAa’s workload.  However, during the 111th Congress, Secretary Shinseki testified before this committee that VA would easily be able to fast-track those claims.  I quote, “by 2013, we will be back to where we are today at about 161 days” to process a claim.

Under Secretary Hickey, as you know, we are not there today.  On the contrary, we are at nearly 280 days for an initial rating decision. Without better workload or surge capacity planning, I fear that VA is simply one national mission away from complete collapse and utter failure.

This is simply unacceptable, so again, we are here today to explore how the people who make up VA can prevent this scenario from happening.  I’d like to thank Under Secretary Hickey for being here today, as well as those who submitted statements for the record.

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