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Opening Statement of Honorable Dina Titus, Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing on this important topic.

I would like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee.  The topic for this hearing focuses on the growing backlog of appeals pending with the VA and the Board of Veterans Appeals.  

I routinely hear from veterans in Southern Nevada that are waiting far too long to receive a decision on their appeals.   Improving the speed and efficiency of both the claims process and the appeals system will be a small step to recognize these men and women for their sacrifices.

We often hear from the VA about a transformation at the Department and it is important that we start to see results for our veterans.   It was promising to hear one VA official suggest that the VA is at the “tipping point” of breaking the claims backlog.  We all hope this is in fact the case; however the VA has not yet provided us with clear information to indicate that the move to VBMS and the new processing system will indeed provide all the gains in efficiency that have been promised

I know that veterans in Las Vegas do not feel like we have reached a tipping point.  Veterans in Nevada and four counties in California are served by the Reno Regional office. The average amount of time to complete a claim at the Reno VA Regional Office is 530 days, far from the 125 day goal set by Secretary Shinseki.

I will again request that the VA provide this Subcommittee with benchmarks for individual RO’s as they move to meet the 125 day goal. I have repeatedly made this request and have not yet received this information from the VA.  More needs to be done, and it needs to be done faster.  

I am very encouraged that there has been progress made on this issue at some RO’s.  In the past 45 days, as a result of providing provisional ratings and clearing the inventory of old claims, the total number of pending claims has dropped by 44,000, and the number of backlogged claims has dropped by 74,000.  I also applaud the VA for rolling out VBMS at all 56 VA Regional Offices more than 6 months ahead of their original goal.

I am pleased with this progress, but am concerned that an increased focus on claims has led to a decreased focus on veterans’ appeals.  VBA has surpassed a quarter million claims awaiting an appeal and BVA has 45,000 claims pending. The average length of an appeal completed in FY 2012 was an astonishing 903 days.  Currently 45% of cases sent to the BVA are referred back to the VBA for additional evidence or due to errors on the part of the VBA.  To veterans waiting for an update on their appeal, this all adds up to an even longer wait for the benefits they deserve.

I am pleased to hear there has been progress in reducing avoidable remands but there is still room for improvement.  However, what really concerns me is that assuming that VBA does work through the current backlog by 2015; this could lead to a significant number of appeals.  By BVA’s projections, the workload will more than double by FY17, from approximately 45,000 claims today to more than 102,000.  This is further compounded by the fact that we have been made aware that VBMS is not ready for use by the BVA.

I strongly urge the VA to take the necessary steps to ensure that VBMS is also functional for the needs of the BVA as quickly as possible.  It is counterproductive to send electronic files to the BVA in a format that will result in further delay for our veterans.  The intent of this transformation from this Subcommittee’s perspective was not to rob Peter to pay Paul. So let’s not resolve the backlog at the VBA only to create a new one of appeals at the Appeals Management Center and the Board of Veterans Appeals.

I look forward to your testimony and hope to hear recommendations that are consistent with producing the best outcomes for our veterans appealing RO decisions.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I yield back.