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 Mr. Steve Hernandez, County Veterans Service Officer, McLennan County, Texas
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee,
My name is Steve Hernandez. I am the McLennan County Veterans Service Officer, located in Waco, Texas. On behalf of the veteran community of Central Texas, the citizens of McLennan County, the Commissioners Court of McLennan County, and the McLennan County Veterans Service Office thank you for allowing me to provide testimony on a very important issue that is affecting the nation: The Chronic Backlog of Benefit Claims for our nations’ veterans.
As you are all aware, nationally, benefit claims submitted to the Veterans Affairs Regional Office (VARO) have increased dramatically. We attribute the influx to an increased average of single digit to double digit individual disability claim submittals, economic stagnation, employment difficulties, issues involving social reintegration, and a continued stream of past era veterans submitting claims for the first time or resubmitting previously denied claims, just to mention a few.
Unfortunately, from a regional perspective, the Waco VARO has been identified as the worst of the 57 RO’s under the ASPIRE database. Because of this dubious distinction, the Waco RO is under intense scrutiny for the backlog and discussion continues on how the federal government can resolve this dilemma. Realizing the economic benefit in breaking through the backlog and the catastrophic condition of the current federal system, state leaders have authorized the state veteran component of the Texas Veterans Commission to dedicate state assets to assist with the backlogged claims with a commitment of $1.5 million dollars for the State Strike Force Teams, a team of counselors who will assist in fully developed claims as well assisting in claims assistance and development.
To fully understand the Waco VARO’s dismal performance requires an in-depth evaluation on the causes for such a backlog. The major cause for the spike in the backlog has been the Nehmer claims as well as the most recent presumptive Agent Orange illnesses. Illnesses that have been long overdue in recognition. The federal directive posed on the Waco RO as a responsible party to Nehmer death claims proved to be a daunting task. Not only were there 40,000 more claims added to the operation for decisions but the award distribution became extremely complex as these claims involved estate succession that proved unprecedented like never before in deciding the rightful beneficiaries.
In evaluating the backlog at the grass root level, eliminating the claims backlog will require what hopefully will be a short term commitment from states that have the ability to supplement state assets to assist in claims processing. The investment should yield an equitable rate of return for the state economy. Also, the local private sector could become more involved as community partners in creating “one stop” shops utilizing federal, state, or private funds and grants in assisting in the diagnosis of certain specialized claims that could relieve the decision process and the backlog also being experienced by the VA’s health care system. The Veterans Benefit Management System must also be a priority in the development of advancing into the 21st century with new technology. The continued review of evaluating the effectiveness of the rating schedule diagnostics codes should also be considered.
As the local veterans service officer, I am the recipient of direct public contact from the veterans who are being confronted with life challenges as they await word of the status of their claim. The level of frustration, coded threatening innuendos, some uncontrolled anger outbursts, misunderstanding and system confusion on the process, and dire economic need are the common and frantic interactions with the veteran while waiting for a decision. The most disheartening part of the prolonged process is if they are denied, which is a reality. Many have invested their future on the decision while waiting, leaving many with few alternatives but to become further dependent on other VA programs.
The effects of the prolonged backlog are affecting the veteran in the most adverse way. If the data is possible, I am certain it would be a travesty to know how the backlog has affected veteran homelessness, relationships, crime, addiction, mental health, and suicides. The prolonged wait on claim decisions cannot be productive on our society and unfortunately will continue to lead to social problems at the national level. A sad and embarrassing end to the dedicated patriots who have braved austere conditions, family separation, traumatic experiences, and multiple deployments to provide us the freedom and liberty as a free society.