Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Submission For The Record of Paralyzed Veterans of America
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus, and members of the Subcommittee, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) would like to thank you for the opportunity to offer our views on legislation impacting the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that is pending before the Subcommittee. These important bills will help ensure that veterans receive the best services available to them.
H.R. 1288, the “World War II Merchant Mariner Service Act”
While PVA recognizes the valuable service provided by the Merchant Marines during World War II, PVA has no position on H.R. 1288, the “World War II Merchant Mariner Service Act.”
H.R. 1494, the “Blue Water Navy Ship Accountability Act”
PVA supports H.R. 1494, the “Blue Water Navy Ship Accountability Act.”
H.R. 1623, the “VA Claims Efficiency Through Information Act of 2013”
PVA supports H.R. 1623, the “VA Claims Efficiency Through Information Act of 2013.” Providing more information to veterans with claims pending would seem to be particularly beneficial. Requiring the Secretary to maintain an internet website to provide this information is both an efficient and accessible method to inform veterans who may have claims pending. In addition, providing the numbers by regional office (RO) allows a better and more objective examination of the success of the various ROs as well as their success in processing claims for specific medical conditions.
PVA supports H.R. 1809. Like H.R. 1623, it will provide greater information to a veteran submitting a claim. Providing information on average wait times for claims processing and the percentage of claims approved will increase the understanding of the process and may help set expectations of how long a veteran may have to wait for a claim to be adjudicated.
H.R. 2086, the “Pay As You Rate Act”
PVA strongly supports H.R. 2086, the “Pay As You Rate Act.” While reducing the backlog and providing timely disability ratings should remain the number one priority for all involved, in reality it is critical to focus on the immediate needs of many veterans with disabilities who await receipt of benefits. At present, veterans who have been waiting for a decision on their initial claims endure hardships during transition from service, particularly among service members and veterans living with disabilities, family responsibilities, unemployment, and other adjustment issues. Those with complex claims (8+ issues, severe disabilities, mental and poly traumas) face barriers to health access and economic hardship and they will benefit most from a timely decision on an initial claim for VA benefits. It does not make sense that payment and benefits should be delayed even though a decision on a specific disability has been made by the Secretary. While this will not solve the problem of unmet needs for disabled veterans who are waiting for their final decision, it will begin providing access to care, benefits and financial assistance that is so critical to an improved quality of life.
H.R. 2138, the “Ending VA Claims Disability Backlog and Accountability Act”
PVA supports H.R. 2138, the “Ending VA Claims Disability Backlog and Accountability Act,” but with a key modification. While we understand the desire to codify VA’s plan and stated deadline to reduce the backlog, PVA believes that setting Memorial Day 2015 as the date for achieving the VA standard of a claim approved or denied within 125 days after the date of submission with a 98 percent accuracy date is arbitrary. PVA is not aware that VA has ever identified a specific date in 2015 to reach its goal. PVA has always believed that this was an intentional decision by VA to allow the greatest flexibility to either use the end of Fiscal Year 2015 or the end of Calendar Year 2015 to meet its goal. PVA does not believe it matters which date is used as long as the requirement is met. If the VA can achieve the desired outcome by Memorial Day 2015, PVA would be extremely pleased; however, we feel that making this a legislative requirement places an additional burden on VA that is unnecessary. That being said, PVA supports and has always supported the need for milestones and targets that allow congressional oversight and measures of progress toward the 2015 goal that VA seems unwilling to more clearly establish or define.
PVA does not support H.R. 2189, which would establish a commission or task force to evaluate the backlog of disability claims of VA. PVA believes that the time has passed for a commission to examine the claims backlog and instead aggressive oversight is needed, which the Committee has been attempting with VA. VA has committed to eliminating the backlog by 2015 and we believe that they are working toward this goal in good faith. In fact, the backlog has been reduced.
Currently there are approximately 802,000 pending claims, which is down over 80,000 from April 2013. The number of pending claims over 125 days has fallen in the same period by almost 90,000. Now is not the time to consider changes to the system which will simply be a distraction. Constant changes and distractions as “new ideas” were tried or studied have in many ways hurt efforts to reduce the backlog and should not be attempted now.
However, there are issues that the Committee should continue to aggressively pursue. PVA feels that VA needs to publicly establish milestones and measures of effectiveness, sharing those with Congress and stakeholders. We find it hard to believe that VA does not have its own internal milestones to know if it is making progress on the backlog. If this is the case, the Secretary should publish these milestones. If VA does not have milestones, it is even more important for the Secretary to explain why and also to explain how he is tracking progress without them.
H.R. 2382, the “Prioritizing Urgent Claims for Veterans Act”
PVA is unsure of the necessity of H.R. 2382, the “Prioritizing Urgent Claims for Veterans Act.” In fact, VA is already taking these steps when necessary. While PVA understands the intent, the legislation seems arbitrary. For example, the legislation uses age 70 as a determining factor, however, a 65 year old may be in a much more difficult situation and in need of claims adjudication whereas a 70 year old may be much better off both financially and physically. In addition, the proposed language doesn't mention "financial hardship" as a condition. PVA would recommend this be included which would potentially help widows awaiting DIC and veterans on Pension with static, catastrophic injuries. These are the ones most often impacted by the backlog.
H.R. 2423, the “Disabled Veterans’ Access to Medical Exams Improvement Act”
PVA supports H.R. 2423, the “Disabled Veterans’ Access to Medical Exams Improvement Act.” VA has had great success with the use of contract physicians. Extending the temporary authority until December 31, 2016 will further support the effort to reduce the backlog and then provide additional authority for a year beyond VA’s backlog reduction goal to ensure the ability to maintain the 125 day decision goal. More importantly, if VA misses its 2015 backlog reduction target, contracted physicians will still be available to continue supporting the process with no additional legislation required.
Mr. Chairman, we would like to thank you once again for allowing us to address this legislation. PVA would be pleased to take any questions for the record.
Information Required by Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives
Pursuant to Rule XI 2(g)(4) of the House of Representatives, the following information is provided regarding federal grants and contracts.
Fiscal Year 2013
No federal grants or contracts received.
Fiscal Year 2012
No federal grants or contracts received.
Fiscal Year 2011
Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, administered by the Legal Services Corporation — National Veterans Legal Services Program— $262,787.