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Witness Testimony of Col. Mike Warner USA (Ret.), Chair, New Jersey Governor's Council For Military and Veterans Affairs

THANK YOU FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO TESTIFY ON IMPORTANT ISSUES PERTAINING TO OUR COUNTRY’S VETERANS.

MY NAME IS MICHAEL WARNER.  I AM A RETIRED ARMY OFFICER AND SERVICE CONNECTED DISABLED VETERAN. 

MY LAST ASSIGNMENT WAS COMMANDER OF FORT DIX, NEW JERSEY. 

UPON MY RETIREMENT, I WAS APPOINTED BY GOVERNOR WHITMAN TO THE POSITION OF DEPUTY COMMISSIONER FOR VETERANS’ AFFAIRS FOR THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY.  IN THE CAPACITY, I HAD THE PRIVILEGE TO SERVE THE VETERANS OF THE NEW JERSEY AND MANAGE THE STATE’S VETERANS’ PROGRAMS. THOSE PROGRAMS INCLUDED MANAGEMENT OF THE LARGEST STATE VETERANS’ CEMETARY IN THE UNITED STATES, OPERATIONS OF 3 VETERANS’ NURSING HOMES, AND OVERSIGHT OF NEW JERSEY’S VETERANS’ BENEFITS PROGRAMS – ASSISTING VETERANS IN THE FILING OF THEIR DISABILITY CLAIMS.

I WOULD LIKE TO COMMENT ON TWO AREAS THAT ARE THE DIRECT CONCERN OF THIS SUB COMMITTEE.

FIRST, IN THE AREA OF STATE VETERANS’ CEMETARIES, I STRONGLY ENCOURAGE THE CONGRESS TO AUTHORIZE AN INCREASE IN THE BURIAL ALLOWANCE FOR VETERANS IN ORDER TO OFFSET THE INCREASING COSTS ASSOCIATED WITH THE BURIAL OF VETERANS AND OPERATIONS OF THE STATE CEMETARY PROGRAM.   SIMILIARY I BELIEVE THAT IT IS IMPORTANT TO AUTHORIZE A BURIAL ALLOWANCE FOR THE SPOUSES OF VETERANS INTERRED IN STATE VETERANS’ CEMETARIES.  U. S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS’ AFFAIRS CEMETARIES AND ARLINGTON CEMETARY INTER SPOUSES AT NO COST TO THE VETERAN.  NEW JERSEY PROVIDES FOR THE BURIAL OF SPOUSES AT NO COST TO THE VETERAN. HOWEVER, STATE VETERANS’ FAMILY MEMBERS INTERRED IN STATE VETERANS’ CEMETARIES SHOULD RECEIVE THE SAME CONSIDERATION AS VETERANS’ FAMILY MEMBERS INTERRED IN OUR NATIONAL CEMETARIES.  I WOULD ALSO TESTIFY THAT SPOUSES OF VETERANS ARE AS MUCH VETERANS OF MILITARY SERVICE AS THEIR SERVICE MEMBER.  THE FAMILY MEMBERS SERVE BY ENSURING THAT THE VETERAN CAN DO HIS OR HER DUTY WITH THE CONFIDENCE THAT THEIR FAMILY IS BEING HELD TOGETHER BY THE STRONG AND CAPABLE HANDS OF THEIR SPOUSES – MANY TIMES ON MUTILPLE SEPERATIONS FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME. 

THE OTHER AREA I WOULD LIKE TO COMMENT ON IS THE CLAIMS PROCESS, AND, SPECIFICALLY, THE ACCESSABILITY OF THE C&P EXAMINERS.

I BELIEVE THAT THE PROCESS FOR CONDUCTING THE C&P EXAMINATION NEEDS TO BE RE-EVALUATED.  CURRENTLY, VETERANS ARE REQUIRED TO TRAVEL TO THE VA MEDICAL CENTER TO MEET WITH THE VA MEDICAL PERSONNEL FOR THEIR C&P EXAMINATION.  FOR THIS AREA AND SOUTH JERSEY, THAT REQUIRES THE VETERAN TO TRAVEL TO PHILADELPHIA, NEWARK OR WILLMINGTON FOR THEIR EXAMINATION.  THIS POSES A HARDSHIP FOR MANY OF OUR VETERANS, PARTICULARLY, OUR OLDER VETERANS AND THEIR CARE PROVIDERS.

I BELIEVE THAT MANY OF THESE EXAMINATIONS AND INTERVIEWS COULD BE CONDUCTED AT THE CBOC LOCATIONS.  WHILE THE REQUIREMENT TO TRAVEL TO THE MEDICAL CENTERS MAY NOT BE ENTIRELY ELIMINATED, THIS APPROACH WOULD REDUCE THE NUMBER OF VISITS TO THE MEDICAL CENTER THE VETERAN WOULD BE REQUIRED TO UNDERTAKE. 

BRINGING THE C&P EXAMINERS AND OTHER PROFESSIONIALS TO THE CBOC WOULD BE IN KEEPING WITH THE CONCEPT OF BRINGING THE VA TO THE VETERANS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, AS OPPOSSED TO REQUIRING THE VETERAN TO TRAVEL TO THE MEDICAL CENTER FOR ALL SERVICES.  IT IS NOT ANY MORE DIFFICULT TO SCHEDULE A VETERAN FOR A VISIT TO A CBOC THAN IT IS TO SCHEDULE THE VETERAN TO A MEDICAL CENTER FOR A VISIT.  FRANKY, IT WOULD ALSO BE GOOD FOR THE C&P PERSONNEL TO GET OUT OF THE VA MEDICAL CENTER AND SEE VETERANS IN THE COMMUNITY.

THE PROCESSING OF CLAIMS ALSO SEEMS TO BE A NEVER ENDING PROBLEM NO MATTER HOW HARD WE WORK TO “FIX” IT.  THE PROCESSING OF CLAIMS HAS BEEN AN ISSUE TO VETERANS EVEN BEFORE I WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE STATE’S PROGRAM TO ASSIST VETERANS IN FILING THEIR CLAIMS. IN FACT, THERE IS A GREAT ARTICLE ON THE BACKLOG OF CLAIMS IN THE FRIDAY EDITION OF THE “NATIONAL JOURNAL.”  ACCORDING TO THE ARTICLE, THE BACKLOG OF CLAIMS EXCEEDS 600,000. 

I BELIEVE THAT ONE OF THE WAYS TO REDUCE THE TIME IT TAKES TO PROCESS VETERANS’ CLAIMS IS TO SORT CLAIMS BY DIFFICULITY AND THE NUMBER OF PRIMARY CONDITIONS ON THE VETERAN’S CLAIM.  FOR EXAMPLE, IF CLAIMS WITH ONE PRIMARY CONDITION WAS DEVELOPED AND SUBMITTED, THE REVIEW PROCESS WOULD BE VERY SIMPLE.  THE CLAIMS OFFICER WOULD ONLY BE REQUIRED TO REVIEW THE DD 214, REVIEW THE DOCTOR’S INFORMATION AND THEN DETERMINE IF THE VETERAN’S CONDITION MET ONE OF THE 15 PRESUMPTIVE CONDITIONS.  IF SO, THEN APPROVE THE CLAIM AND DETERMINE THE LEVEL OF COMPENSATION.  FOR EXAMPLE, IF A VETERAN SERVED IN VIETNAM, AND HIS PHYSICIAN HAS DOCUMENTED PROSTATE CANCER, HE SHOULD BE AWARDED COMPENSATION WITHOUT A FULL C AND P REVIEW.  EVERY VIETNAM VETERAN WHO SERVED IN COUNTRY IS PRESUMED TO HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO AGENT ORANGE, AND IF THE VETERAN LATER DEVELOPS PROSTATE CANCER, IT IS PRESUMED THAT THE CANCER IS A RESULT OF HIS SERVICE IN THE THEATER.  THERE SHOULD BE NO NEED TO DRAG OUT THE PROCESS ANY LONGER UNLESS THERE ARE OTHER SECONDARY CONDITIONS THAT HAVE BEEN CLAIMED.  AT SOME POINT, WE NEED TO TRUST THE VETERAN AND THEIR PHYSICIAN.

IN SUMMARY, THE CLAIMS PROCESS CAN BE SIGNIFICANTLY REDUCED FOR CLAIMS THAT HAVE ONE PRIMARY CONDITION, AND THAT CONDITION IS ONE OF THE 15 PRESUMPTIVE CONDITIONS.  IF THESE CLAIMS WERE ASSIGNED TO ONE OFFICE AND NOT MIXED IN WITH THE MORE DIFFICULT CLAIMS, THEY COULD BE ADJUDICATED QUICKLY.  THERE IS NO REASON FOR THESE CLAIMS TO DWELL IN THE SYSTEM FOR MONTHS.  THIS APPROACH WOULD ALLOW THE C&P EXAMINERS TO FOCUS MORE OF THEIR TIME ON THE MORE DIFFICULT CLAIMS.

THANK YOU FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO DISCUSS THESE IMPORTANT ISSUES WITH YOU.

DO YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS?