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.
Witness Testimony of Mr. Alexander Nicholson, Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member Titus, and Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:
On behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), I would like to extend our gratitude for being given the opportunity to share with you our views and recommendations regarding these important pieces of legislation.
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 almost 270,000 members and supporters, we strive to help create a society that honors and supports veterans of all generations.
As of this week, there are over 833,000 VA claims pending and over 547,000 of those are backlogged. But those who find themselves in need of benefits and care from the VA are more than just numbers and aggregate data to be reported on and tracked each week. Each number represents a face, a person, a family, and a story. To help bring these stories to life for Congress, the media, and the American public, IAVA launched a new digital tool this week called The Wait We Carry, which can be accessed and explored online at www.TheWaitWeCarry.org. We encourage each of you and your staff to take a moment to look at this enlightening data visualization, and use it to find real stories of real constituents in your own home states and communities who are or were stuck in the backlog.
IAVA believes that all veterans must have access to quality health care, benefits, and related care and services. The men and women who volunteer to serve in our nation’s military do so with the explicit understanding that they and their families will be cared for during their period of service, and also after their period of service should they sustain injuries or disabilities while serving. IAVA is therefore able to offer its support for many of the bills that are the subject of this hearing today because we believe they would better enable the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to live up to this commitment on behalf of the American people.
IAVA currently takes no position on H.R. 1288, the WWII Merchant Mariner Service Act, which would designate those who served as Merchant Mariners during WWII as veterans for the purpose of providing these individuals and their family members with access to certain benefits afforded to veterans. While we understand and acknowledge that there is an ongoing debate within the veteran community about whether to bestow veteran status and benefits on other categories of individuals who served our nation during previous periods of conflict, we defer to that debate and to our colleague veteran and military service organizations, whose memberships and constituencies this would impact more, on this recommendation.
IAVA supports H.R. 1494, the Blue Water Navy Ship Accountability Act, which would require the Secretary of Defense to determine the proximity to the Vietnamese mainland of Naval vessels deployed to the Vietnamese area of operations during the war in Vietnam, and to provide that information to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs for the purpose of making it available to the public. Many veterans of the war in Vietnam were exposed to harsh chemicals like Agent Orange through direct contact. However, many others were exposed in indirect ways while serving on ships stationed off the Vietnamese coast.
Keeping our promise to care for our veterans when they return home means constantly evaluating and analyzing not only the delivery of their benefits, but also the circumstances that qualify veterans for receipt of those benefits. IAVA supports this bill because it will expand the umbrella of access to resources for veterans afflicted with symptoms related to exposure to Agent Orange to those veterans who also came into indirect contact with the chemical.
IAVA supports H.R. 1623, the VA Claims Efficiency Through Information Act, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide and post statistical information on disability claims on the VA website. This information would include key data points, such as the number of claims pending and the number of claims in backlog status, and these data would be further stratified by VA regional office and the type of medical condition for which a claim has been filed.
The VA already posts this type of information in raw form on its website on a weekly basis, and it has been making important strides toward ending the claims backlog, but the work is far from complete. As of this week, the VA has 833,000 disability claims pending, over 547,000 of which are in backlog status. IAVA supports this bill because it aims to provide America’s veterans with clearer information and a more complete picture regarding the disability claims filing processes. At the same time, it will provide Congress with more detailed information on the areas of the claims filing process that are inefficient, enabling legislators to better formulate thoughtful policies.
IAVA supports H.R. 1809, which requires that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs post information on the average time for processing claims and the percentage of claims that have been approved on the VA website and in certain VA offices and facilities.
The VA is currently in the process of attempting to simplify and streamline the process for filing and tracking a disability claim. However, at present a vast majority of claims are still stuck on paper rather than in the VA’s electronic systems, leaving open the possibility of lost or misfiled claims for a large number of America’s veterans. IAVA supports this bill because it aims to provide veterans with more information on the claims process which will assist them in making informed decisions about the best way to file their claim and the expectations they can have on the time it will take to complete the claims process.
IAVA supports H.R. 2086, the Pay As You Rate Act, which would allow certain veterans filing disability claims to receive interim payments while their claim is being adjudicated. Too many veterans are waiting too long to receive the benefits they earned by answering their nation’s call to service and volunteering to put themselves in harm’s way. With over 524,000 VA disability claims in backlog status, the nation is failing to live up to its promise to help these veterans when they return home carrying the injuries of over a decade of war.
The VA’s special processing initiative for two-year old claims was developed and carried out to help alleviate this problem. Over a two-month period, VBA was able to eliminate almost all two-year old claims from the backlog and provide provisional ratings based on existing evidence to those that could not be rated outright. This bill takes the success of this special processing initiative a step further by implementing the good faith practice of providing veterans with at least a portion of the benefits they have earned until their claims have been fully processed. IAVA supports this bill because it represents the kind of common sense approach to the disability claims process veterans deserve.
IAVA supports H.R. 2138, the Ending VA Claims Disability Backlog and Accountability Act, which would direct the VA to end the disability claims backlog by Memorial Day of 2015 through the implementation of its strategic plan and require the VA to issue periodic reports on its progress toward implementation. This bill also mandates timely measures to increase information sharing between the VA, the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Defense, along with thorough training for claims processors.
While IAVA acknowledged the ambitious intent of the VA’s relevant strategic plan when it was announced, we joined many other advocates in expressing concern that the lacked specific details on how the metrics in the plan were derived, the data on which those metrics were based, and sufficient information on how the plan would be implemented. We also expressed concern that insufficient transparency along the way toward the VA’s 2015 goal would make it hard for outside groups and Congress to hold the VA accountable for meeting it’s own goals. We were also uncomfortable with the inability or unwillingness of VA leaders to articulate for Congress or the American public a date in 2015 by which its backlog-related goals would be accomplished.
This bill seeks to address some of those shortcomings in the VA’s strategic plan, especially with respect to keeping Congress and the public informed on its progress. America’s veterans understand that goals can only be met when they are clearly defined. IAVA supports this bill because setting clear benchmarks for ending the backlog increases the incentive to get the job done and increases the ability of Congress to hold the responsible parties accountable.
IAVA strongly supports H.R. 2189, which would establish a much needed multi-agency task force or working group to evaluate the underlying causes of the VA disability claims backlog, facilitate coordinated remedies to those causes, and help bring outside expertise to bear on the problems the VA has encountered that have resulted in the backlog growing as high as it did and persisting for as long as it has. The existence and work of this task force would in no way impede the ongoing work of the VA to address problems that have already been identified, and it would not simply study the matter from afar and issue a report years later. Instead, the Chairman has smartly and carefully crafted this bill to ensure that the task force would augment and support the VA’s ongoing work, contribute more added value to that effort, report on it’s findings early and often, and increase transparency throughout the process.
The VA is certainly already working to address some of these issues and the confidence deficit that has resulted through reforms such as moving to an all-electronic filing system, increasing access to information, increasing staffing bandwidth and training, coordinating better with other elements within the VA, and communicating more efficiently and effectively with the Department of Defense and other executive agencies. All of these are welcomed reforms, but even the VA admits that there are still snags and challenges with which it needs help. The formation and existence of such a task force would facilitate getting the VA that coordination and outside help, and would also be an important facilitator of looking ahead to potential future challenges so that we do not wind up in this unfortunate situation again. IAVA strongly supports this bill and stresses again that it would in no way impede the good work and progress that the VA is already making on the backlog. Instead, this bill and the resulting task force would only help speed up that process and get the VA the information, resources, and expertise it needs to meet its goals. That is, after all, the common goal of IAVA, other military and veteran service organizations, this Committee, and the VA.
IAVA takes no position on H.R. 2341, the Veterans Pension Protection Act, which aims to protect against financial gamesmanship in the pension claims process. The intent of this bill is to avoid unnecessary payment of pension compensation due to fraud and mischaracterized or hidden existing resources, but we also understand that some of our colleague veteran and military service organizations have concerns about how this specific proposal could impact veteran pensioners in other ways. IAVA acknowledges and appreciates the principles this bill is seeking to uphold and believes that all reasonable efforts should be made to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse from government spending. However, at this time we take no position on this particular piece of legislation.
IAVA supports H.R. 2382, the Prioritizing Urgent Claims for Veterans Act, which would direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to prioritize claims of veterans who are terminally ill or suffering from life-threatening illnesses, and those veterans who are 70 years of age or older. The VA is currently processing over 833,000 disability claims, over 547,000 of which are in backlog status. These claims represent actual veterans experiencing actual hardships and health issues related to their service. One approach the VA has recently adopted to address this issue is the fast-tracking of claims for veterans experiencing financial hardship, homeless veterans, terminally ill veterans, former POWs, and Purple Heart recipients. This bill would codify a mandate to fast-track some of those categories of veterans, the principle behind which the VA seems to already support. IAVA likewise supports this bill because it expands on a practice that ensures that our nation’s most vulnerable veterans are provided with the benefits they have earned quickly and effectively.
IAVA supports H.R. 1623, the Disabled Veterans’ Access to Medical Exams Improvement Act, which would extend the temporary authority of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to contract with physicians to perform disability examinations through December 31, 2016. It would also extend the ability of a greater number of VA regional offices to use, thereby augmenting the ability of the VA to quickly and efficiently complete more claims.
The VBA’s special claims processing initiative for two-year old claims demonstrated how speeding up the medical exam portion of the claim development process can help reduce the overall time for developing and processing a claim. IAVA supports this bill because it expands upon measures to make the disability claim filing process more convenient for veterans and more efficient for the system, which will in turn help clear the backlog quicker.
With over 833,000 claims pending and over 547,000 in backlog status as of this week, we should all be united in supporting every reasonable action to ensure that veterans can receive the benefits they earned in a timely and effective manner. IAVA has helped make this a top priority this year, and we will continue to push, pressure, publicize, and prioritize the disability claims backlog issue until we all succeed in finally ending the VA backlog.
Mr. Chairman, we at IAVA again appreciate the opportunity to offer our views on these important pieces of legislation, and we look forward to continuing to work with each of you, your staff, and the Subcommittee to improve the lives of veterans and their families.
Thank you for your time and attention.