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Witness Testimony of Michael D. Murphy, Executive Director, National Association of County Veterans Service Officers

Good morning Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, and staff, it is truly my honor to be here for this hearing.  As Executive Director of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, I am here today, to comment on the:

    The proposed bill, HR 733, to grant access of Veterans Administration information to Governmental Veterans Service Officers

The National Association of County Veterans Service Officers is an organization made up of local government employees.  Local government employees that believe we can help the Department of Veterans Affairs reduce the number of backlogged benefits claims that veterans are currently waiting to have adjudicated by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Our members work in local government offices, an “arm of government” if you will, in 37 States and currently are comprised of 2,400 full time employees in 700 communities. We are not like the Veterans Service Organizations.  We are not dues driven or membership driven.  Every veteran, their dependents and their survivors who live in our respective jurisdictions are all our clients.  We serve them at no cost to the client.  We are equipped to handle and ready to assist veterans one on one, with every Department of Veterans Affairs benefit, state and local benefits, and the reason we are here today, to assist them in tracking their claim.

There are over 22 million honorably discharged veterans of the armed forces of the United States.  During the course of their life after the military they may have occasion to file a benefits claim for pension or compensation.  Most veterans are not members of a   Veterans Service Organization, but chances are that they live within one of our communities served by a State, County or City Veterans Service Officer.  To the citizens of our communities, we are the Veterans Administration.

The main issue we are here to talk about today is the lack of cooperation by the Department of Veterans Affairs in recognizing our members as an arm of government.  We are treated as if we are a Veterans Service Organization rather than what we are.  As governmental employees we are not unlike the VA itself.  There is just a failure to recognize us in that light.  

Let’s say that a veteran comes into my office to file a claim for a knee injury that occurred while the veteran was on active duty in the Army.  We first have to determine eligibility based on war time/peace time service and a number of factors established by the VA.  Let’s say this veteran appears to be eligible. We then put together a claim for compensation, gather up medical evidence, service medical records, service records, buddy statements, and other pertinent information and submit the claim to one of a number of Veterans Service Organizations.  We help the veteran select a Veterans Service Organizations to represent the veteran through a Power of Attorney.  This is done so that the veteran may have representation at the VA Regional Office and for any subsequent appeals that may occur.  Our local Governmental Veterans Service Officers may hold the Power of Attorney but many are just too far away from the Regional Offices to adequately represent their client.  

Then after about 3 months the veteran comes back into my office and asks what the status of his claim is as he has heard nothing.  I have no way to gain this knowledge even though the claim originated in my office.  I have to refer him to the VA’s 1-800 number and hope he can ask the right questions or to the Veterans Service Organization who holds his Power of Attorney and who he does not know and probably won’t call.  Hopefully he won’t go to another jurisdiction and file another claim which adds to the backlog.

What we are asking in this bill under consideration is to allow the Governmental Veterans Service Officers to have “read only” access to their client’s information.  This will allow the local Governmental Veterans Service Officer to properly track and provide follow-up for their clients.  Sometimes a veteran will file an appeal on a denied claim and go to another Veterans Service Officer in another jurisdiction and file another claim for the same thing.  This ultimately adds to the backlog and unnecessarily bogs down the system.  If enacted, this bill will avoid duplication of claims which in turn, will assist in reducing the current backlog of claims.  

We know there is much consternation on the part of the Veterans Administration regarding this issue.  They have had some problems, in the past, in keeping secure, that information that veterans must give to the government to obtain the benefits that they earned. We understand this and are held to the same standards as the VA already.  Remember that a majority of claims for compensation and pension originate in local Governmental Veterans Service Offices.  We are required to keep secure that information that we supplied to the Veterans Service Organization and ultimately to the Veterans Administration.  As a prerequisite to receive access to the VA databases, the government employee must be accredited with the Veterans Administration, must have attended and successfully completed Training, Responsibility, Involvement and Preparation of Claims (TRIP) training and must have had a background check performed on them as a condition of employment.

There has been much cooperation between the Federal, State and Local Government over many years.  There are cooperative Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) the Department of Agriculture, Department of Justice and other Federal arms of government routinely sign every year.  The United States Forest Service cooperatively works with local jurisdictions to safeguard the resources on the National Forest.  The FBI and Homeland Security work closely with local law enforcement jurisdictions in an effort to safeguard local residents.  A local law enforcement officer can run a records check on a subject and get most everything the FBI has on the subject in a few minutes.  There are safeguards in place to make sure the information is not released improperly and it works very well.  If the FBI treated local law enforcement like the VA treats our members there would be anarchy in the streets.

In this day and age of our great nation it is unthinkable that a young man or woman enters the military service, serves honorably and upon discharge finds difficulties in obtaining the rights and benefits that they earned through service and sacrifice.  It is our responsibility, the people of the United States, to live up to that promise of a better and brighter future.  That promise that includes a myriad of veterans benefits should the service member becomes injured in defense of freedom; but also an underlying promise that says that if you serve your country with honor your country will be there to serve you, not with a hand out, but a hand up.  Together we must develop a mechanism for solutions, so that veterans are able to return and find their part of the American Dream.

The National Association of County Veterans Service Officers has been in existence since 1990, primarily as a vehicle to provide continuing education and accreditation training in Department of Veterans Affairs' procedures and regulations governing veterans’ benefits.  The Association provides basic and advanced training for County Veterans Service Offices and also serves as a vehicle for them to obtain national accreditation with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The National Association of County Veterans Service Officers is grateful for this opportunity to testify to this Committee.  If we work together, I believe that we can reverse the growing backlog of veterans benefit claims and get our heroes what they earned and truly deserve.

In Closing, the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers recommends that this committee move this bill along in the legislative process.  We believe that this bill has the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of returning veterans and will afford them a better opportunity to obtain their earned benefits.  Thank you for your time and attention.

Biography

Michael D. Murphy
    
Michael D. Murphy was raised in Siskiyou County, California a large geographic county located in extreme Northern California equidistant between San Francisco, California and Portland Oregon.  He is a Vietnam Era Veteran entering the United States Army out of High School.  He served 6 years on active duty being discharged honorably as a Sergeant.

After his military service Mr. Murphy began his career with Siskiyou County as a Deputy Sheriff.  He served honorably in his capacity as a Deputy Sheriff and was appointed County Veterans Service Officer as an additional duty in July 1993 by the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors.  He continued his employment with Siskiyou County until July 2010 when he retired honorably as Undersheriff with more than 30 years of service. Mr. Murphy served for 17 years as Siskiyou County Veterans Service Officer.

In 2002/2003 Mr. Murphy served as President of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers and served as State President of the California Association of County Veterans Service Officers in 2006.  In 2008 Mr. Murphy was appointed Executive Director of the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers and has served in that capacity since.  He is also a member of the Siskiyou County Veterans Commission and has served since 1993.

Mr. Murphy is a graduate of the Butte Police Academy in Chico, California, the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia and the National Fire Academy in Emmetsburg, Maryland.  He has been married to his wife Karen since 1975, has three grown children and three grandchildren.  He continues to live in Siskiyou County, California.