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 John J. "JJ" Kenney, USMC (Ret.), Veteran Service Officer, Homosassa, FL, Citrus County, FL
Good afternoon Mr. Chairman and members of the committee. I’d like to thank the committee for the invitation to speak this afternoon about some of the disparities in the awarding of benefits from state to state. Also I would like to express, in front of her peers, my sincere appreciation to Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite for her efforts on behalf of the veterans of Citrus County. Thank you Congresswoman.
I would like the committee to know that I am not here today to knock the VA. We in the state of Florida enjoy a relationship with our one (1) and only VA Regional Office in St. Petersburg. Many of my fellow service officers in other states only wish they had the working relationship with their ROs. If I have a problem I can pick up the phone and talk directly with the Service Center Manger and the heads of any of the departments at the RO if necessary. And when they say they will get back to you they do!
There has been and continues to be a disparity in the awarding of benefits from state to state. One wonders how this could be possible since all fifty (50) plus regional offices are guided by the same regulations the 38 CFR and the M21 Manual. One, 38 CFR, provides the necessary information with regards to the ethical conduct in the adjudication of veteran’s claims along with how and when information about veterans should be handled. Additionally, the 38 CFR provides the various information required with regards to diagnostic codes for different illnesses and injuries along with the percentages to be awarded for severity of the disability. The M21 Manual is basically a Standard Operating Procedure. What do I do to get from point a, the receipt of a claim, to point b, the decision. It would appear a relatively simple task of reviewing the evidence supplied by the veterans, reviewing Service Medical Records, for in service occurrence, verify character of service, determine from medical evidence if condition is chronic in nature or if the disease or illness is presumptive. Presumptive meaning that the veteran has filed within one (1) of separation or the disability is a result of exposure to some environmental hazard or i.e., Agent Orange, Radiation or was a Prisoner of War.
There are several elements that are not being considered and they include the human element, the veteran population and the inventory of the various VA Regional Offices.
The human element is in every decision the VA renders, however, it differs from state to state. I know that the training received by VA personnel is superb and to the best of my knowledge, standardized. So why the disparity in awards? I’d like to provide the committee with a couple examples.
Example 1- The veteran, will call him Mr. Smith, resides in California. He entered the Armed Forces in mid 1960s. At boot camp the veteran received inoculations with the air guns. In the late 1990s early 2000’s he is diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He had not used drugs, had no tattoos and had not engaged in any improper conduct. He applied for Service Connection based on the use of the air guns providing medical evidence that supported his claim. He was awarded service connection. Veteran number 2, we’ll call him Mr. Jones, resides in Florida and entered the service approximately the same time as Mr. Smith. He to received inoculations with the air gun. Again, around the same time as Mr. Smith Mr. Jones was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. He initially thought it may have been the result of a surgery he’d undergone at the VA. Thinking he’d received blood during the surgery he applied for compensation thinking the blood was tainted. Upon receipt of the claim the VA located the surgical notes that indicated Mr. Jones had not received any blood products and denied his claim. In discussion with the veteran again ruling out drugs, improper behavior or tattoos it came down to the air gun. The veteran again applied for compensation based on the air gun providing some of the very same information Mr. Smith did in his claim. Additionally, he found a medic who was administering shots the same time as Mr. Jones was at boot camp. The medic verified the method the air gun was used and this supported the medical evidence that was submitted by both Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones claim was again denied and it is being appealed. Mr. Jones will die before his appeal is complete.
Example 2- The veteran, we’ll call him Mr. Toms, resides in New Jersey. He spent over twenty years (20) in aviation. Almost twenty (20) years after retirement he applied to the VA for service connection for a hearing loss and tinnitus. He provided medical evidence of his hearing loss and listed the types of acoustical trauma he was exposed to which included several tours in Vietnam as a door gunner. His claim moved through the system and he was subsequently granted service connection. Our next veteran, we’ll call him Mr. Wilson, resides in Florida. He to spent over twenty (20) years in aviation. Fourteen (14) years after his retirement he applied for service connected disability for several conditions included hearing loss and tinnitus. He provided the VA with medical evidence of the hearing loss and his service medical records at retirement supported a hearing loss. He to provided information on the types of acoustical trauma he was exposed to including several tours in Vietnam serving as a door gunner also. The claim was denied and is in appeal.
It is apparent to me that the VSR, that human element, played a significant role in all these claims. How to remove this factor in the claims process is, in my opinion, almost impossible. Continued training is the best bet in reducing this factor in the claims process.
In discussing the state veteran population and regional office inventory one has only to look at three (3) states and see where the problem is. California has a veteran population of 2,310,968 million, the largest, and has three (3) regional offices. Florida has a veteran population of 1,788,496 million and has one (1) regional office. Texas has a veteran population 1,681,748 million and has two (2) regional offices. Looking at the numbers is it any wonder there is a disparity in decisions. The key word in rating decisions is production. It’s sad but the truth that VSR’s are graded on their production so it’s no wonder given the size of inventory and the number of regional offices that there will be disparities in decisions. I submit to the committee that the VA should conduct a study similar to the CARES Commission to accurately identify by state either additional regional office requirement and/or reallocation of regional office areas of responsible.
One last item before I close and that will affect the claims process is the age of our VSR’s. A significant amount are about my age and looking to retirement in the next couple of years. Now is the time for the VA to establish a plan for recruitment of the replacements of these VSR’s. If we don’t plan for it now I can assure you that the disparities in the claims process will esculate.
Again I’d like to thank the committee for the invitation to speak and also your efforts on behalf of our nation’s veterans.
J. J. Kenney