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Opening Statement of Honorable Jerry Mcnerney, Ranking Member of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for holding today’s hearing about Veterans’ records, and how the VA is managing its transition to a paperless system and new technologies.

We’ve all read the recent news articles regarding lost, inaccurate and mishandled Veterans’ records at the hands of the DoD and VA, as well as their struggles in recapturing this data once it is lost or improperly recorded.  I am deeply troubled about these incidents. This is unacceptable.

Congress hears complaints of lost, missing, destroyed or unassociated files all too often.  Information affecting a Veteran’s claim should be better protected by those charged with its care.  Accountability needs to occur at the management level and with individual employees who handle the day-to-day influx of information.

Veterans and their families should not be burdened with the responsibility of re-creating lost files or providing multiple copies of records that once were in the DoD and VA’s possession.

I also remain troubled about the more than 1.3 million claims and appeals that are languishing in VA’s flawed processing system—in an organization with a current management culture that often over-emphasizes production over quality.  It is imperative that we make comprehensive performance improvements to the system while ensuring accurate and accountable claims outcomes for our Veterans.  

I know that VA is taking great pains in this direction.  However, today, like many Veterans and stakeholders, I cannot say that I have confidence that the VA is in complete control over these processes.

I have met with too many Veterans who have had to wait years for an initial decision on their benefits.  I have heard too many unfortunate stories of Veterans who suffer as a result of VA temporarily closing poor performing Regional Offices for retraining, like the Oakland RO that serves Veterans in my district.  While the average days pending for most claims is 255 days; in the Oakland RO, it is a mind-blowing 425.8 days.  

I know VA ROs such as Waco and Los Angeles are experiencing similar delays.  In fact these delays are systemic because 67% of all claims and appeals are in backlog status and nearly 25% will be done erroneously.  

Why the disparity?  Why the protracted delays?

Since 2007, the VBA has added over 11,000 claims processing personnel and Congress has funded these requests.  Yet the backlog still climbs.  The VA OIG concluded that in order to change these outcomes, VA needs to enhance policy guidance, compliance oversight, workload management, training and supervisory review in order to improve claims processing operations.

These conclusions do not change.   The year may be about to change but the issues are the same— the backlog is just a symptom of the problem.  The current system is broken and in need of a major overhaul.  

We need to focus on getting the claim right the first time—as if a do-over is not an option.  We need to get this right so that no claims are languishing and Veterans, their families and survivors get the benefits that they have earned and deserve without delay.

I am somewhat enthused by some of VA’s latest technology undertakings, including e-Benefits and its Stakeholder portals.  However, I remain concerned that again some of VA’s efforts move forward without direction, like a rudderless rowboat.  

VA needs a comprehensive plan with a clear vision and mission as many of the stakeholders indicate in their testimonies.  To date, we still have not received the VBA Transformation Plan that VA Under Secretary Hickey promised at our hearing in June of this year.

Today’s witnesses will provide us with greater insight on these systemic problems--including how Veterans and their dependents are harmed when VA and DoD mishandle their documents and how improvements can be made.  I hope to hear testimony and responses that reflect VA’s solemn duty to deliver its benefits mission using world-class 21st century inputs that focus on Veterans ahead of processes.

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