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. Walter J. Tafe, Director, Burlington County Military and Veterans Services
Good afternoon. Thank you for inviting me to speak on this important subject. My name is Walter Tafe and I am the Director of Burlington County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Our office serves a community of over 35,000 veterans. With our close proximity to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst approximately 20 percent of our clients are recent returnees from the Global War on Terrorism.
I am here today to share my observations regarding the Veteran Affairs (VA) requirements for Compensation and Pension (C&P) examinations. I don’t come here today to throw stones at the VA. I understand the backlog issues and hope to make meaningful testimony that can help all involved gain a better prospective of the veteran’s point of view. Although I’m sure this program was intended to speed the process by providing verification of a veteran’s condition, in many cases it has the opposite effect. The reality is that veterans face a wait of several months before seeing a doctor, a visit that’s often no more than a five to 10 minute conversation with a doctor who takes just a cursory look at the medical records—and that’s assuming the regional office has sent the records at all. Veterans leave this examination extremely frustrated; many tell me they feel they’ve wasted several months waiting for an appointment that wasn’t even a real medical exam.
I would like to discuss several recommendations that, I believe, could have a dramatic impact on the process, reducing both the wait time for C&P examinations and the backlog that is presently crippling the claims process. My recommendations are based on my conclusion that many—at least 50 percent—of the C&P examinations conducted by the VA are unnecessary.
Many of my clients are receiving their health care exclusively from the Veterans Administration health care system. This means that the VA already has their complete medical history in its possession. When these veterans file a new claim or a claim for increase, they must first receive a C&P exam to verify the condition. The veteran waits several months to receive a C&P examination so a VA doctor can verify a condition that was already diagnosed by another VA doctor. This makes absolutely no sense. It seems like the VA does not trust its own doctors to make a competent assessment and recommendation. Often, the veterans interpret this as a means of delaying the process; as a result, it builds great animosity between veterans the very department that is supposed to protect them.
As I initially stated, approximately 20 percent of my current clients are only just returning to civilian life after serving on active duty. They are National Guard and Reserve personnel being released after activation, or active duty military members separating or retiring. In these cases the entire military service medical records are available to the VA. These members normally file a claim within the first three months of separation. Many are combat wounded, or have conditions diagnosed during active duty and verified during separation physical examinations. Even with a definitive medical exam at the close of their service, they must wait months to receive a C&P exam appointment—and the only point is to verify a medical condition that’s already a matter of record. These examinations could be completely eliminated if the VA and DoD would simply communicate with each other and share information. I recommend that a military member’s separation examination should consist of the same verification procedure used by the VA, thereby reducing the redundancy and expediting the claim.
Another concern I share with others in my field is the requirement of a full verification process for every condition when a veteran is cared for by a private physician. I understand that in some cases verification by the VA of a condition is needed and fully justified. However, in documented cases of stage four cancers, severe diabetes with insulin dependence, coronary artery disease or similar terminal conditions a C&P exam seems unnecessary. Add the additional step of filing a claim and submitting a VA Form allowing his or her doctor to release all records to the VA, and the resulting delay can begin to seem cruel.
A case in example: Former Marine Ronald Guernon. He is presently temporarily rated at 100 percent for service-connected colon and kidney cancer. Over a year ago his condition worsened and his prognosis was determined to be terminal. At that time I filed a request to upgrade his condition to permanent and total. I also requested Aid and Attendance. He now resides in Spring Hill Florida where his wife, a registered nurse provides care. He also receives hospice care. His life expectancy is listed as month-to-month. Despite the ongoing documentation of Mr. Guernon’s deteriorating condition and the fact that all medical records have been given to the VA, the Tampa Regional Office requested he come for a C&P examination to determine whether his condition has worsened. This veteran is, literally, unable to travel to Tampa due to his condition. This proud Marine is absolutely convinced the VA is “just waiting for me to die so they don’t have to bother.” While I’m sure this is not the case, Mr. Guernon is the perfect example of the crippling bureaucracy that is so significantly complicating the VA claims process.
The VA is making some strides and I applaud the new “Disability Benefits Questionnaires” forms that have been provided for veterans to bring to their health care providers. These questionnaires were developed so a veteran can give it to his or her doctor to complete providing all the medical information required to make a rating decision on certain conditions. These questionnaires have been developed for almost all conditions a veteran can receive compensation for. If used correctly, they should negate the C&P process in most cases.
In closing I would like to say it is my strong belief that the present C&P exam process is severely hindering, rather than helping, the VA claim process. In most cases the examinations are not thorough and leave veterans questioning why they waited several months for a five-minute exam. The perception that C&P exams are a method of delaying and denying claims is rampant in the veteran’s community; and it’s all the more potent when veterans like Mr. Guernon share their stories. It is my hope that these hearings will result in a thorough self-examination by VA personnel to evaluate the relevance of this requirement and eliminate unnecessary examinations. Thank you for your time and consideration of my testimony.