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Submission For The Record of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Chairman Miller, Ranking Member Michuad, and Distinguished Members of the Committee:

On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), I would like to extend our gratitude for this opportunity to share with you our views regarding the topic of today’s hearing on “Expediting Claims or Exploiting Statistics?: An Examination of VA’s Special Initiative to Process Rating Claims Over Two Years.”

IAVA is the nation’s first and largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their supporters. Founded in 2004, our mission is important but simple – to improve the lives of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families. With a steadily growing base of over 200,000 members and supporters, we strive to help create a society that honors and supports veterans of all generations.

On April 19, 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that it would be promptly implementing a new initiative intended to expedite disability compensation cases in which the claimant has been waiting for more than one year for a rating decision. This, as we understood it, would be accomplished by providing provisional ratings based on available probative evidence within a veteran’s file and allowing that veteran up to one year to submit additional evidence and receive an increased rating decision based on the additional evidence added to his or her file within that period.

IAVA, like many other veteran and military service organizations as well as this Committee and its Senate counterpart, was initially surprised to learn of this new initiative. We were simultaneously perplexed as to why it had not been instituted previously and hopeful that it would prove to be a change for the better in how the VA handles seriously delayed disability claims decisions. However, at just beyond the half way point of the initial time period set out by the VA for the first phase of this new initiative, it remains too early for outside advocacy, service, and watchdog organizations to assess the wisdom, authenticity, and impact of this special claims processing initiative.

Our initial impression of this new initiative was that it would include cases pend for more than one year and that the 60-day time period laid out by the VA for carrying out this initiative would apply to that entire batch of cases. This would have been a promising, albeit admittedly challenging, scenario indeed, but one to which it at first appeared the VA had committed itself. However, it soon became clear that the VA was quickly unlinking the initial batch of cases it had touted as falling within the new initiative (i.e., those pending for one year or more) from the time period that it had touted as tied to the new initiative (i.e., 60 days). Now, it seems, the VA plans to only tackle cases pending for more than two years within that first 60-day window and then subsequently tackle one-plus year cases over a yet-to-be-specified period of time. While this is certainly a positive development for veterans whose claims have been pending for egregiously lengthy periods, it is hardly the sweeping initiative that we were all initially led to believe was being undertaken by the VA to significantly reduce the disability claims backlog in a short amount of time.

In taking on the commitment of this special claims processing initiative, the VA warned that some new claims may become backlogged that may not have otherwise become backlogged because of the new focus on older claims at the expense of newer claims. The VA also warned that the backlog might temporarily get worse before it got better as a result of this new initiative. However, it appears that the backlog has steadily decreased by a somewhat healthy margin over the several weeks preceding this hearing. If this pace continues, then the VA’s predictions about the backlog worsening as a result of this special initiative may prove to be unfounded.

If this is the case, and there is no decrease in progress as a result of this special initiative, then the VA is certainly due credit for succeeding in at least one efficiency improvement related to backlog claims processing and management. This is important because most of the VA’s stated backlog solutions have centered around technological improvements and advances that would primarily help with future filed claims and would not directly impact the current backlog of paper-based claims that are the subject of great public and congressional concern. For this reason, the VA needs more focus on backlogged paper-based claims and less on pivoting and redirect to talking points about how it will prevent recurrences and future resurgences of the backlog or how it will address future disability claims.

While the VA’s technological improvements are not the most advanced or sophisticated compared to similar technology used in private industry and in other parts of government, they are nevertheless improvements. But what the VA needs to address more thoroughly is what it is going to do to tackle the current backlog of paper-based claims. This special claims processing initiative appears promising on the surface, despite what appears to have been a shifting goal post in the beginning of the game. However, what this Committee will need most in order to fully evaluate this initiative as well as the VA’s overall performance is data, information, and communication, all of which the VA has been less than forthcoming with at times.

For many, the claims backlog is about numbers and metrics. For others, it may be about politics and accountability. But for IAVA, the claims backlog is about real lives, real people, and real members of our organization who have paid their dues to our nation and sacrificed their health in its defense, but who are now waiting for that nation to fulfill its promise to care for those who have borne the battle, to paraphrase President Lincoln and the VA’s own mission statement. For IAVA, the problem has a human face and a real voice, like that of IAVA member Rachel McNeil, who joined the Army Reserves in 2002 and deployed to Iraq in December of 2004. Rachel filed a claim after she came home from Iraq in 2006, and had been more than 827 days since the VA even acknowledged that she filed a notice of disagreement with their decision in 2010.

IAVA member John Wypyszinski spent 16 years in the military in both the Army and the Navy as a nuclear, biological, and chemical operations specialist, and later
as a medic and a hospital corpsman with the Marines. He deployed twice to Iraq before he was medically retired in 2007 due to injuries, but he was lost in the VA disability claims process for an excruciating 963 days. And then there’s IAVA member Luis Cardenas Camacho, who served in the Marine Corps from 2004-2008 and deployed to Iraq three times. Upon returning home, Luis found himself fighting new enemies, including PTSD, depression, and his physical injuries. Luis has been dealing with the VA disability claims office for five years and still hasn't received his benefits.
    
It is stories like these - the real stories and real lives of real heroes - that motivate us here at IAVA, that fuel our outrage at the slow pace of progress on the backlog, that exacerbate our impatience sometimes with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), and that make us wary of surprise “special initiatives” to address the backlog in ways that seemingly could have been utilized all along. For us, and for other outside advocacy and service organizations, it is difficult to diagnose problems, provide solutions, and assess impact without access and data, just as it would be impossible for a mechanic to assess and fix an engine problem without being able to look under the hood or for a doctor to diagnose and treat a patient without being permitted to see or talk to that patient. It is our hope that though this hearing, as well as through continued aggressive oversight and inquiry on the part of this Committee, substantive answers to the question that is the topic of this hearing can be ascertained.

We again appreciate the opportunity to offer our views on this important topic, and we look forward to continuing to work with each of you, your staff, and this Committee to improve the lives of veterans and their families. Thank you for your time and attention.