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Opening Statement of Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Good afternoon and welcome everyone.  This oversight hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will now come to order.  

I called today’s oversight hearing to discuss an important yet often overlooked aspect of the veterans’ benefits process – access to various service department records.  Such records are often necessary, and vital, for a veteran to prove their claim. As Chairman of DAMA, I am troubled by information regarding the handling of records that has come to my attention.

In today’s environment, as we shift from paper records to a digital environment, important questions arise regarding what the best practices are for making this transition.

For example, agencies such as the VA and the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, must engage in a daunting cost-benefit analysis to determine what records should be digitized, and how this process should take place.

Similarly, the Department of Defense must determine the best way to maintain digital records in various environments, from DoD hospitals to combat zones.  

Further, all three agencies must continue to work together to ensure that veterans’ records are initiated, maintained, and transferred as efficiently as possible.

Today, that is the aspect that we’d like to focus on – the efficiency of the records management process.

As many of you may already be aware, the records management process begins with DoD.  Veterans depend on DoD to properly note certain in-service events, whether in the veteran’s individual service medical and personnel records, or in unit histories.  

Issues pertaining to the thoroughness of DoD’s record keeping have recently received media attention in light of evidence that some units were not properly documenting in-service events, such as combat related incidents. This has been a source of significant frustration for many veterans who file claims with VA and are dependent on such documentation to substantiate their claims.

For those records that are properly maintained by DoD, custody of certain records is then turned over to the Archives, although different branches of service have different policies and procedures.  The National Archives and Records Administration maintains millions of military personnel, health, and medical records for discharged and deceased veterans of all services.  

Although the Archives recently began receiving access to digital records from the Army, they do not have full digital access to the other branches of service.  In addition, the agency still maintains a full warehouse of paper records from older generations of veterans.   As all agencies that handle such vast amounts of paper know, there are challenges associated with maintaining both digital and paper records.  

The Archives has recently faced some challenges with respect to the maintenance and security of veterans’ records. I would like to invite NARA to continue an open dialogue with this Committee so the most effective procedures for managing veterans’ records can be implemented.

Turning to the role of the VA, the agency has a statutory duty to assist a claimant in obtaining certain records.  Accordingly, it is important that we work together to ensure that VA is able to communicate both effectively and efficiently with both the Archives and DoD to comply with this duty.

In addition, VA is also in the process of making important decisions about how veterans’ records and claims folders are handled in a digital environment, as they continue their transition over to the electronic Veterans Benefits Management System, or VBMS.    

While we all have high hopes for VBMS, we must not overlook one of its essential functions, which is the process for scanning and converting veterans’ records.

Before I conclude, I would again like to emphasize that our goal today is to ensure that the entire chain of command, from DoD, to the Archives, to VA, handle veterans’ records with the utmost care and respect.  

Often, a single record or notation can be the difference in whether a veterans’ disability claim is granted or denied.  This is why we must work together to ensure that no records are lost, overlooked or otherwise unable to be associated with an individual disability claim.

I welcome today’s witnesses to continue this ongoing discussion and offer their own specific recommendations on how to improve upon the veterans records management process, particularly now as we work to transition into a digital environment.  

I would now call on the Ranking Member for his opening statement.