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

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

We are here today to examine how to improve underperforming regional offices. 

One of the challenges facing our nation’s veterans is the current backlog of claims for disability benefits.  As of May 31, 2011, there are over 809,000 claims for disability benefits pending rating at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Regional Offices.

Of this amount, almost 60% have languished past VA’s strategic target of completing claims in 125 days. The President’s FY 2012 budget projects that the average days to complete a claim will rise from 165 days in FY 2010 to 230 days in FY 2012.

This data shows that while VA is producing more claims decisions than ever before, they are clearly not able to keep up with the demand. Congress is unable to truly understand the make-up of these 809,000 claims and reasons why so many of them take so long to be adjudicated correctly.

Therefore, I will soon be requesting that the VA Inspector General direct the Benefit Inspection Division to compile copies of the 100 oldest claims awaiting adjudication at VA Regional Offices and conduct a review of these claims. I will also ask that this Subcommittee be provided with a detailed analysis of the type of issues that are claimed in these files, the average age of the claim, the average age of the claimant, and other characteristics of these claims such as at which Regional Office they were processed.

I am hopeful that this analysis will allow the Subcommittee to better understand why these claims have been in the backlog as long as they have and how the processing of these claims might be improved. 

In addition to seeking answers by identifying trends in the types of cases that have lingered on long past any reasonable period for adjudication, this Subcommittee is looking at VA employee performance and the lack of consistency and quality in rating decisions between Regional Offices that has been noted in prior IG reports. 

We plan to attack this from several different perspectives.  Today we will focus on the underperforming Regional Offices.  In a future hearing I anticipate examining the training of VA employees in claims processing.   

As a former professional athlete, I have an understanding of and respect for healthy competition.  It is one of many tools for measuring and encouraging peak performance by all.  There are regional Offices that constantly rank in the top tier of performance metrics and customer satisfaction.  We commend and salute those offices for consistently giving their very best on behalf of the veterans they are serving.  Our veterans, who have given so much, deserve no less. 

Competitive comparison can also quickly identify chronically poor performers.  There may be many explanations for this underperformance, from a lack of training to inadequate resources or even poor management. 

But regardless of the explanation, the failures of these offices are unacceptable.   While there are a few bad employees that contribute to these mistakes, I do believe that many more are good employees trapped in a system that makes things difficult.

When our Regional offices fail, those who suffer are the Veterans served by that office.  Heroes in need should not be denied or delayed help, often for many years, because of the happenstance of where their claim was filed. This is unacceptable and must end.

Last month, I introduced a bill intended to address this problem and received some very good input at the legislative hearing from the VA and several of the VSO’s on ways to improve upon the initial ideas in that bill.  I welcome today’s witnesses to continue that discussion and offer their own specific recommendations on how to fix the problem of consistently underperforming Region Offices. 

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