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Witness Testimony of Eric A. Hilleman, National Legislative Service, Deputy Director, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States

MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE:

On behalf of the 2.4 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW) and our Auxiliaries, I would like to thank you for your invitation to testify at today’s important hearing on the “Board of Veterans’ Appeals (BVA) Adjudication process and the Appeals Management Center (AMC).”  Let me begin by stating that the VFW is committed to an effective and efficient claims process, with a just and accessible appeals process.  We hope to be a partner in seeking actionable solutions to the challenges that the VA faces. 

The VFW’s genesis is with the group of veterans who returned from the U.S. campaigns on Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 and 1899.  These veterans organized to care for veterans who endured the hardships of the battlefield, so that our nation may never forget their sacrifice.  All Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) have a similar goal, to ensure the American people, through their government continue to recognize and acknowledge their sacred obligation to those citizens who sacrificed and risked life and limb for their defense.  The VFW believes this agreement does not cease when the uniform lies folded in a drawer.   

We must view the Department of Veteran Affairs’ claims process through the lens of this social contract.  We, and other VSOs, have long served at no cost to our fellow veterans to provide benefits counseling, claims development, outreach, and claims review in VA regional offices, the BVA and the AMC.  We, like other VSOs, maintain full time appeals consultants at the BVA and AMC.

The VFW adds value to the claims adjudication process.  We serve as a quality assurance tool in reviewing cases.  We formulate arguments to further veterans’ rights to fair compensation.  In addition, we foster a working relationship with the VA with the goal of keeping the best interests of the veteran at the forefront of the decision making process. 

The backlog of veterans’ claims within Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) is on the rise.  The nearly 640,000 rating and authorization cases are pending and this is 7.4 percent higher than last year and 22.5 percent higher than two years ago.  The challenges VBA faces in addressing the mounting workload are well established.  These include the growth of the total claims workload, an ever-increasing complexity of the workload, and the expectations for accurate and timely decisions.  The contributing factors of the backlog are also well known.

The rise in the number of claims is a tragic success for the VA.  Due to VA’s increased outreach efforts and greater access through Vet Centers, more veterans are learning and taking advantage of their earned benefits.  Greater numbers of young veterans are returning from combat operations and seeking assistance to reestablish a civilian life.  So too, an aging generation of Vietnam, Korean, and WWII veterans are living longer lives than previous generations and seeking care at VA facilities. 

With the residual effects of combat and military service on veterans, the complexity of claims is on the rise.  The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has also ruled to improve the fairness and access for veterans seeking compensation injuries and illness incurred or aggravated while in service.  On more than one occasion, rulings of the court have caused VBA to readjudicate thousands of claims in an already overwhelmed claims processing system.  Couple this administrative woe with the medical challenge of multiple body-system blast injuries of OIF/OEF veterans and the increasing strain of the effects of illnesses like diabetes and cancer that are synonymous with herbicide exposure in Vietnam and the VA is overwhelmed. 

As the backlog of VBA claims swells at every step of the process, the VA weighs the values of quality vs. quantity.  The VFW demands both quality and timeliness.  The VA has repeatedly testified before Congress to the ills that plague its claims system.  Congress has aptly responded with a much-needed increase in funding, yet additional personnel, following decades of inadequate staffing, will not be productive in the near term.  The Congress, the VA, and the Veterans’ community must examine the system and move forward together.

VBA has sought to address these problems by creating an Appeals Management Center (AMC) here in Washington.  The AMC is comprised of a dedicated and committed staff.  The AMC addresses the problem of appeal remand development, collecting and requesting additional medical records, exams, and necessary military records.  The driving idea behind the AMC was specialization, thus making the AMC a catch basin at the end of the process to improve quality.  It has yet to realize its original vision – again the absence of training and difficulties in fully staffing ensures that it will never live up to its potential.

The VFW supported the establishment of the AMC and we continue to work side-by-side with the VBA to improve the appeal process.  There are a number of looming concerns beyond the present need for adequate funding, such as personal issues in the areas of training and turnover.   VBA employees face a long and complex training regimen and are not easily replaced.  VBA’s ability to deliver timely and accurate claims is eroding because of operating in crisis management mode, an aging workforce, and a program that seems to be growing relentlessly more complex.  Perhaps the answers lie in some combination of technology, more effective and enlightened training, and new employees committed to serve the new generation of veterans.  Most troubling to us is the possibility of significant policy change, not necessarily favorable to veterans, which would further complicate the process and change it into a more adversarial environment.

Despite their best efforts, VBA’s production is fraught with a high error rate and growing caseload.  It seems clear that VBA lacks a methodology to eliminate or accurately identify the serious errors that plague one out of every seven or eight claims decisions.  It also seems obvious that faulty decision-making will go unaddressed unless solutions involving a combination of improved information technology, program reform, and strong leadership are implemented with special care not to increased complexity and duplication. 

Reform of the system is required.  Change is not without precedent in government agencies, but it is only possible when all concerned are truly interested in improvement, and not just in putting a positive spin on the latest bad news.  We think that with the support of a strong VBA leadership the necessary reform is possible.  We urge the Congress to further examine this issue, exercise leadership, and build consensus for reform. 

Thank you for this opportunity to present our views before this subcommittee.  We welcome questions and look forward to working with interested parties toward viable solutions with the best interests of veterans at the heart.