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Submission For The Record of Mr. Brian Lawrence, Disabled American Veterans, Assistant National Legislative Director

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

On behalf of the 1.3 million members of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), I appreciate the opportunity to express our views on the following bills which were considered during the Subcommittee hearing on April 17, 2007. 

H.R. 67, the Veterans Outreach Improvement Act of 2007

This legislation would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to establish procedures for effective coordination of outreach activities between the various offices and administrations within VA, and to ensure that state and local outreach assistance is provided in locations that have large concentrations of veterans or are experiencing growth in veteran populations. It would also authorize the VA to make grants to state veteran agencies for state and local outreach services. The bill would authorize $25 million to be appropriated annually through fiscal year 2009 for the outreach efforts and grants.

The DAV understands the importance of reaching out to veterans to inform them of benefits to which they may be entitled, and expends considerable resources in this regard. Both the DAV Veterans’ Information Seminar program and the DAV Mobile Service Office (MSO) program are designed to educate disabled veterans and their families on veterans' benefits and services. In both programs, highly trained members of DAV National Service Officer Corps provide service deep within veterans’ communities across the country to counsel and assist veterans in completing applications for benefits from the VA and other government agencies.

While outreach is important, we believe a higher budget priority for VA is to decrease the number of backlogged VA compensation claims. Therefore, the $25 million that would be authorized by H.R. 67 for outreach would be better utilized if it was put toward a program that would help reduce the backlog. For instance, the Benefits Delivery at Discharge (BDD) is a program that assists servicemembers at participating military bases with development of VA disability compensation claims prior to release from active duty.  The discharge physical is conducted under VA disability examination protocols either by VA medical staff, contract medical examiners or military personnel. BDD fosters a seamless transition from the military to the VA system and accelerates claims for compensation.

Many questions also arise as to how H.R. 67 would be established. For instance, it would apparently press certain local government officials into federal service without any involvement or agreement by their employers.

In summary, the DAV does not oppose H.R. 67, but we would prefer to see its proposed funding directed toward the more urgent need for resources within the VA claims processing system.  

H.R. 1435, the Department of Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog Reduction Act of 2007

This legislation would establish a three-year pilot program in an effort to reduce the backlog of pending claims for VA benefits. More specifically, it would require the VA to refer certain claims needing further development to County Veterans Service Officers (CVSO) in California, Florida, Ohio, South Carolina, and Texas. CVSO staffs would act as claimant advocates in developing such claims, and would be granted access to client information contained in the VA Benefits Delivery Network.

The DAV is strongly opposed to this legislation. It is the Federal government’s responsibility to provide benefits and services to members of the Armed Forces. The VA is the agency that administers such benefits, and it does so effectively for health care, insurance and memorial affairs. But because the VA has efficiency problems within its claims processing system, its responsibility for assisting veterans with the development of their claims should not be shifted to local government officials. Veterans may currently enlist the help of a CVSO as a designated power of attorney (POA) for representation in a claim if they wish, but they are not required to do so. Requiring CVSO representation would be unfair to veterans who may choose to grant POA to a number of other veterans’ service organizations that employ service officers that, in many instances, receive more extensive and superior training than is available to a CVSO. Additionally, because the need for further claims development often translates to the need for a more thorough VA medical examination, channeling the process through a CVSO would be an added, unnecessary step that would increase veterans’ waiting times and add to the backlog. Further consideration should also be given to the security of veterans’ highly sensitive and personal information, and the problems this bill might create in that regard.

The DAV has for the past several years brought attention to the problems that have been steadily building within the VA claims processing system. Along with identifying the sources of these problems, we have offered solutions to reduce the backlog and restore efficiency to the claims processing system. I would refer members of the Subcommittee to our prior testimonies on this issue, including our recent statement on the fiscal year 2008 budget for VA, which provides the core steps that must be taken to address the claims backlog problem.

While we appreciate the Subcommittee’s consideration of innovative methods to address the problems within VBA, the DAV does not believe this bill presents a sound idea and we encourage the Subcommittee to reject it.

H.R. 1444

This legislation would require the VA to pay an interim benefit of $500 per month when a claim for veterans' benefits is remanded by either the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or the Board of Veterans' Appeals and the VA does not make a decision on the matter within 180 days of the date of the remand.

The DAV appreciates the Subcommittee’s effort to provide financial relief to veterans whose claims have been on appeal for some time, but we do not support this legislation. If enacted, this bill could lead to abuse of the system by some who might deliberately delay the appeal process in order to obtain the maximum amount of interim benefits. A number of procedural steps are in place to allow veterans adequate time to develop evidence to support claims appeals, and extensions of deadlines are also available for veterans to submit evidence. Such protections could be manipulated to maximize the amount of interim payments by dragging an appeal out as long as possible. Therefore the DAV opposes this well intended but flawed legislation.

H.R. 1490

This legislation would provide a presumption of service connection to veterans presenting a claim for VA disability compensation or death benefits. Immediately upon processing the claim, VA would award benefits at a median level for the type of disability until the appropriate level of benefits is determined. The bill would also require VA to audit a percentage of claims to uncover and deter fraud. It would direct VA to redeploy, for the purpose of assisting veterans applying for benefits, those employees involved with processing claims that are no longer needed to evaluate claims due to the above presumption.

The DAV does not support the idea of presumption of service-connectedness for submitted claims.  The laws and regulations formulating the VA ratings system are complex and veterans would both knowingly and unknowingly file meritless claims for benefits. The resulting penalties and overpayments would create a hardship for those who were audited, and the massive increase in mandatory funding that would certainly follow enactment of this legislation would place undue hardship on taxpayers because a large percentage of benefits paid would be unwarranted.

The DAV appreciates the Subcommittee’s consideration of innovative ways to address the longstanding problems within the VA claims processing system. However, we believe that addressing the issue will require measured steps to correct the problems at their core. VA needs adequate resources to hire an adequate number of full time employees. It requires resources to establish a comprehensive training program to bring new employees up to the standard of knowledge that will allow them to rate claims properly; and finally, VA needs to hold employees accountable for their work. Emphasis should be placed on quality as well as efficiency. Employees who fail to meet a specified level of accuracy should be required to take remedial training. Should accuracy problems remain after remedial training, the employee should be removed from a decision making position and either terminated or relocated to a position that can be adequately fulfilled. VA should have the authority to make such changes so that our nation’s disabled veterans and their families can rely on a VBA that measures up to other administrations within the VA.

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, the DAV appreciates the opportunity to submit our views for the record. We look forward to our continued work with the Subcommittee to serve our nation’s disabled veterans and their families.