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Witness Testimony of Mr. Eliseo “Al” Cantu, Chair, Texas Veterans Commission

Good morning, Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney, and Members of the Subcommittee.  For the record, my name is Eliseo “Al” Cantu, Jr., Chair of the Texas Veterans Commission.  I am humbled by the invitation to testify before you today.  On behalf of the Texas Veterans Commission, I would like to thank the Subcommittee for this opportunity and for your interest in the efforts the state of Texas has undertaken in order to better serve the 1.7 million veterans in our state. 

I am accompanied today by Mr. Jim Richman, Director of Texas Veterans Commission’s Claims Representation and Counseling program.  Mr. Richman has been with the agency for over 25 years, working his way up from entry-level claims counselor to becoming the program director in 2006.

My testimony will provide you with some background information regarding Texas’ State Strike Force and Fully Developed Claims Teams Initiative, directed by state leaders this past July.  Mr. Richman’s testimony will provide you with the details of the initiative, and an update of our progress, keys to its success.

TEXAS VETERANS COMMISSION

The Texas Veterans Commission is the veterans advocacy agency for the state of Texas.  Our mission is to advocate for and provide superior service to Veterans in the areas of claims assistance, employment services, education, and grant funding that will significantly improve the quality of life for all Texas Veterans, their families and survivors.  The Texas Veterans Commission provides these services through four program areas: Claims Representation and Counseling, Veterans Employment Services, Veterans Education Program, and the Fund for Veterans’ Assistance.

No other state has centralized all of these program areas within their state’s veterans agency. Texas is becoming recognized for aggressively leading on veteran issues. National leaders have referred to the “Texas-model” when advocating for the integration of veterans services.

Texas Veterans Commission’s Claims Representation and Counseling Program assists veterans prepare compensation and pension claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  In 2011, Mr. Richman’s claims counselors handled 179,981 benefit cases on behalf of veterans and dependants, filed 125,179 new monetary claims, and 16,101 new appeals.

CLAIMS PROCCESSING ASSISTANCE TEAMS (CPAT)

In November 2009, Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Veterans Commission launched the special Claims Processing Assistance Team (CPAT) project to assist Texas Veterans who had their claims for monetary benefits pending with the two VA regional offices in Texas (Waco and Houston). This project built upon the success of a pilot project between the Texas Veterans Commission and VA in 2008.  At the time the CPAT project was announced, a total pending caseload of 39,000 federal benefit claims existed in Texas’ two VA regional offices. These CPAT Teams consisted of 12 additional claims counselors (6 at each regional office).  They targeted specific areas within the claims process, doing all development needed on the individual claims and working directly with the claimants in identifying and acquiring necessary evidence.  The project was funded for the period from November 2009 to July 2011.  In that time, these special CPAT teams returned to the VA 17,325 cases ready for decision or award action.

STATE STRIKE FORCE AND FULLY DEVELOPED CLAIMS TEAMS INITIATIVE

Since that time, the situation has become measurably worse.  On July 16, 2012, the Commission testified before the State Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee regarding the state of the backlog in Texas. According to the VA, in January 2010, the total pending caseload in Texas was 50,934 claims and 15,644 appeals. The number of cases that had been pending over 125 days, what the VA considers backlogged, was 16,803 claims.  On July 14, 2012, the total pending caseload in Texas was 107,279 claims, and 28,183 appeals.  The number of cases that had been pending over 125 days, what the VA considers backlogged, was 68,612 claims.  In essence, in Texas, the total pending caseload has more than doubled while the backlog has more than quadrupled from 2010 to present.  Presently, the real world average for getting a decision on a VA claim is 18 to 24 months.

Following that hearing, on July 19, 2012, Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, working with Governor Rick Perry and State House Speaker Joe Straus, directed the Texas Veterans Commission to reinstitute the "State Strike Force Teams" that were implemented in 2009 to help reduce this federal backlog of veterans' claims for disability benefits. The state leadership also directed the Texas Veterans Commission to help the backlog by assisting veterans in filing fully developed claims, which are processed faster by the VA, and to address critical staffing needs in areas where Veterans need additional access to Texas Veterans Commission Claims Counselors. On July 25, 2012, Governor Perry provided $100,000 to the Texas Veterans Commission to immediately implement these teams.  On July 26, 2012, Governor Perry, Lieutenant Governor Dewhurst, and Speaker Straus authorized the Texas Veterans Commission to utilize $1,511,267 in the 2012-2013 biennium to address the backlog of federal disability claims.

These teams will be working on both ends of the claims process to ensure that the backlogged claims and new claims have all the information and evidence needed in order to allow a more timely decision. The goal of this initiative, with the single year of funding we have been authorized, is to reduce the current backlog of claims in Texas by 17,000 claims.

Mr. Richman is going to share with you how he and his teams will make that goal a reality, momentarily.  Again, I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.  Thank you for the work are doing, and will do, on behalf of Texas veterans, and all veterans, of this nation’s Armed Forces.