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Witness Testimony of Kathryn A. Witt, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the Nation’s wounds,  to care for him who has borne the battle, his widow and his orphan.”

…President Abraham Lincoln, Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865                        

Thank you for inviting Gold Star Wives of America (GSW) to participate in this Hearing.

Gold Star Wives is a congressionally chartered Veterans Service Organization for the surviving spouses of military service members who died on active duty or as the result of a service-connected illness or injury.

I would like to share some of the difficulties that surviving spouses encounter due to the mishandling of documents at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The VA employees who answer the phones frequently have little or no knowledge or information about survivor benefits, and they tend to give inappropriate or incorrect answers to questions. Due to the lack of appropriate responses survivors are deprived of the benefits due to them or do not receive those benefits for several years.

GSW met with Secretary Peake last year and discussed the problems our members were having with obtaining information about benefits and with claims processing. Secretary Peake arranged to have all survivor claims processed through the three VA pension offices starting sometime this year. This will allow the VA personnel working in those offices to develop knowledge and expertise about survivor benefits and claims, and therefore process them in a timely, efficient manner. GSW is very grateful to Secretary Peake for this initiative. We think it will solve many of the problems with claims and information concerning VA survivor benefits.

We are also very grateful to Congress for approving the Office of Survivors Assistance at the VA. Linda Piquet, the Acting Director, has already instituted several initiatives to assist survivors.  Although this office does not process claims, Linda has been most helpful when problems do occur.

Claims Processing:

We have had numerous complaints that surviving spouses have submitted claims for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) or claims for money that was due to their deceased spouse. When they call to check on the status of the claim, they are often told that the VA has no record of their claim, and that they should resubmit their paperwork.

I think that much of the VA claims backlog is due to resubmitting and appealing claims that were lost or improperly processed.

One of our members had to submit documentation to the VA three times to prove that she was married to her husband and that they had three children. Another member has four different appeals pending; two of those appeals were submitted twice because the VA had no record of receiving them the first time.

The delays in processing claims for DIC often leave the survivors without income and, in some cases, destitute.

Many of our widows are eligible for ChampVA, the VA’s health insurance program. Several of our members have told me that it sometimes takes 9 months or more to process a claim for ChampVA.

One widow told me that her claim for ChampVA including the documents she provided was shredded and that she was without health insurance for over a month. Several of her health insurance claims were rejected during that time.

Claims for ChampVA need to be processed expeditiously.  No one should be without health insurance coverage for any length of time.

Recommendations:

The VA needs a computer system that scans in the claim and the backup documents provided by the veteran or survivor. This system could then generate a claim number and date on a sheet of paper so that the original documents and claim number could be returned to the veteran or survivor. This would allow the veteran or survivor to call and refer to a specific claim number when they call to check on the status of the claim.  This claim should then be cross-indexed with the veteran’s name and social security number so that any pertinent information and documents already in the VA computer systems could be readily retrieved. Such a system would preclude the need to submit documents such as marriage certificates and birth certificates numerous times.

Such a scanning system could be used as a front end to a computer system that could process simple, straightforward claims such as claims for ChampVA. These claims could then be reviewed by a claims analyst to ensure that all the necessary information and documentation is included and then be completely processed by a computer program.

A computer program to process simple, straightforward claims such as ChampVA claims could be developed quickly and then modules added to the computer program to process claims that are more complex.

The VA backlog of claims would be significantly reduced if claims could be properly logged-in and tracked and the need to submit duplicate and triplicate claims submission eliminated.

We also receive many complaints that claims must be resubmitted or appealed because they were not properly processed the first time. Processing claims properly the first time would also help to reduce the VA backlog significantly.

Itemized Vouchers:

Another significant problem with VA claims processing occurs when a veteran or survivor receives a payment with no itemized voucher accompanying the payment. Some people have several claims pending; without an itemized voucher, they have no way of knowing the purpose of that particular payment, how the payment was calculated or if the payment is for the correct amount.

Recommendation:

I recommend that itemized vouchers that explaining  the purpose of the payment and how the payment was calculated accompany all payments from the VA with the exception of routine monthly payments.

Last month of VA Compensation:

We have recently had a much-publicized problem with a “computer glitch” that caused the last month of the VA Compensation to be retrieved from a deceased veteran’s bank account and never returned to the surviving spouse. This happened in spite of a law that specified that the last VA Compensation payment would not be retrieved.

A new widow recently told me that the VA recouped the last month of pay and then returned it later after her claims were processed.  Even this retrieve and return process causes great financial distress for many surviving spouses.

Taking the last month of VA Compensation directly out of a veteran’s bank account causes great financial hardship to the survivors and in many cases leaves them virtually destitute. This is especially true if the money has already been used to pay the monthly bills. Checks the veteran or surviving spouse have written bounce and the bank then assesses numerous fees.

In many cases it leaves the survivors totally without funds.

Recommendation:

After my husband died, Social Security contacted me by phone and asked me to have the bank return his last month’s Social Security payment. If it is necessary to retrieve funds from a veteran or survivor, I believe that this system is far more considerate of the survivors than directly debiting their bank account for money that may or may not be there.

Thank you for your attention.