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

Good afternoon.  I want to welcome everyone to the first hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for the 112th Congress.  Before we begin, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all of our members and especially to Ranking Member McNerney.  Mr. McNerney has been on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs since he came to Congress in 2007 and he has proven himself to be a strong advocate for veterans and their families.  I congratulate him on his appointment as this subcommittee’s Ranking Member.

It is my intention for this subcommittee to continue its tradition of bipartisan communication and collaboration and I look forward to working with all Members in the months ahead.

We are here today to examine the FY 2012 budget for the Veterans Benefit Administration, National Cemetery Administration, and Related Agencies.

It is no secret that veterans are facing difficult times and we must do everything we can to ensure that programs and benefits administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs are being done as efficiently and effectively as possible.

The elephant in the room, as everyone knows, is the growing size of the backlog of claims for disability benefits.  Since President Obama has taken office, the backlog of disability claims has grown by 103 percent, and VA’s budget projects that the average days to complete a claim will rise from 165 days in FY 2010 to 230 days in FY2012. 

This increase and the continued low quality rating is unacceptable to me, I know it is unacceptable to Secretary Shinseki, and most of all it is unacceptable to our nation’s heroes.

I am not here to point fingers; however it is imperative that VA improve accuracy and timeliness in this area. Congress has provided large sums of money to hire additional claims workers over the past few years, but this is clearly not making a big enough dent. 

I am encouraged to find that resources were allocated in the VA’s budget request for final development and implementation of the Veterans Benefit Management System (VBMS), which should bring VA into the 21st Century with a paperless claims processing system...

However, this new system is still in the testing stage and is years away from full implementation.  While VBMS should bring substantial improvements to the claims processing system, it is not a silver bullet that can singlehandedly end the backlog once and for all.  I believe that the only way to truly address this problem is to facilitate a cultural shift embracing greater accountability and innovation at VBA..

For too long VA has focused on quantity at the expense of quality - this must end. 

The culture of greater accountability and innovation must be embraced and practiced by all at VA from the most junior file clerk all the way up to Secretary Shinseki himself.  It will be this committee’s job in providing oversight to ensure that greater accountability is happening in every corner of the VA, from the VBA headquarters, to the regional offices, and throughout the Board and the Court of Appeals for Veteran’s Claims as well. This Committee will also pursue policy and legislation to help develop and foster a new climate of innovation and accountability at the VA.

I also want to briefly comment that while they don’t seem to have as many challenges as the Court and VBA, we will also be looking at the budgets of the ABMC and NCA and I look forward to hearing from them on ways they intend to reduce costs and improve performance.

I appreciate everyone’s attendance at this hearing and I would now call on the Ranking Member for his opening statement.