Legislative Hearing on H.R. 67, H.R. 1435, H.R. 1444, & H.R. 1490.
LEGISLATIVE HEARING ON H.R. 67, H.R. 1435, H.R. 1444, AND H.R. 1490
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED TENTH CONGRESS
APRIL 17, 2007
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
SERIAL No. 110-11
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
April 17, 2007
Legislative Hearing on H.R. 67, H.R. 1444, and H.R. 1490
Baca, Hon. Joe, a Representative in Congress from the State of California
Prepared statement of Congressman Baca
Donnelly, Hon. Joe, a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana
Prepared statement of Congressman Donnelly
McIntyre, Hon. Mike, a Representative in Congress from the State of North Carolina
Prepared statement of Congressman McIntyre
National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, F. Douglas LeValley, Past-President
Prepared statement of Mr. LeValley
National Organization of Veterans Advocates, Robert Vincent Chisholm, Past President
Prepared statement of Mr. Chisholm
Paralyzed Veterans of America, Carl Blake, National Legislative Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Blake
Upton, Hon. Fred, a Representative in Congress from the State of Michigan
Prepared statement of Congressman Upton
Veterans Law Project, North Carolina Central School of Law, Craig M. Kabatchnick,
Supervising Attorney and Director, and Adjunct Law Professor
Prepared statement of Mr. Kabatchnick
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, Gerald T. Manar, Deputy Director,
National Veterans Service
Prepared statement of Mr. Manar
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, entitled "Veterans Affairs: The Appeal Process for Veterans' Claims," Updated April 9, 2007, by Douglas Reid Weimer, Legislative Attorney, American Law Division
LEGISLATIVE HEARING FOR H.R. 67, H.R. 1444, AND H.R. 1490
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 12:36 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Hall, Rodriguez, Hare, Lamborn, Bilirakis.
Mr. HALL. Thank you all for coming today. We are expecting our Ranking Member to be here any minute.
But because there are a number of other Committee and Subcommittee meetings that are overlapping with this one, I want to try to get started so we can get the members who are testifying through and out of here if they need to leave and get to all of our panels.
I am pleased that you could be here today for this legislative hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.
Today we are going to discuss four bills, House Resolution 67, House Resolution 1435, House Resolution 1444, and House Resolution 1490, bills which will, if passed into law, impact the VA claims delivery system.
And I just want to acknowledge, in addition to our members who are here, Mr. Lamborn, who just arrived, welcome. Mr. Bilirakis I saw a minute ago, Mr. Rodriguez, Mr. Hare.
I also want to thank our staff, Jian Zapata, Shannon Taylor, Kimberly Ross, Thaddeus Hoffmeister, Kristal DeKleer, and Carol Murray and on our Minority staff, John Clark, Jeff Phillips, Arthur Wu, and I think I got everybody.
But just because the last time I did not and they probably do not get thanked enough or acknowledged enough, so thank you all for the work that you do.
Will you join me in the Pledge of Allegiance.
[Pledge of Allegiance.]
Mr. HALL. And if we could have a moment of silence for our service men and women and also for the victims and families of the shootings at Virginia Tech.
[Moment of silence.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
As most know, there are problems with the VA claims process and I want to say at the onset that few of the problems associated with the process are beyond the control of the VA and the product of our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Having said that, I must acknowledge that there is a growing claims backlog that has gone from approximately 465,000 in 2004 to 525,270 in 2005 to 604,380 in 2006 to at its peak this year 647,857.
My last information was that that is down now to 590,000, but the number changes weekly and it is something that we would all like to see much lower. We are looking for help as we devise a way to get that claims process streamlined.
Not surprisingly, this backlog has resulted in increased waiting periods for claims to be processed. At last count, the VA took an average of 177 days to process an original claim and an average of 657 days to process an appeal.
Just last week, the Washington Post published an article entitled, "Delayed Benefits Frustrate Veterans." You may have seen it, but there is a copy of it here which I will be submitting for the record. It details instances of veterans who literally have died while waiting for their claims to be processed.
[The Washington Post article, dated April 8, 2007, entitled, "Hundreds of Thousands of Disability Claims Pending at VA; Current Wars Likely to Strain System Further," by Christopher Lee, appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. To me, this is evidence of a broken system. Whether you are one of the few remaining World War I veterans or recently back from OIF/OEF, you should not have to suffer through extended waiting periods to receive the benefits you earned by serving our country.
I view today's hearing as an initial step in improving the VA claims process.
In the first panel, we will hear from members testifying about their individual bills. Next we will hear from VSOs and practitioners in the field about how these bills might work in practice, and then finally we will receive from the VA their views on the legislation before us today.
I look forward to having a constructive conversation with all our witnesses. I do not know about any other members legislation, but as far as I am concerned, mine is a work in progress and I suspect that there will be changes suggested and probably changes adopted to any legislation that does come out of this Subcommittee.
Before the first panel starts, I want to talk a few moments about House Resolution 1444, a bill that I introduced, which is under discussion at today's hearing.
In simple terms, House Resolution 1444 requires the VA to provide a monthly stipend to certain veterans who have to wait longer than 180 days for a decision from the VA on a remanded claim.
To be more precise, if a veteran's benefits appeal is remanded by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims or the Board of Veterans' Appeals and a decision is not made within 180 days of the remand, the VA will pay the veteran a monthly stipend until a decision is made. This stipend will be $500 per month for each person filing a claim.
If a final decision is favorable, the amount paid will be considered part of the back payment due the veteran. If the decision is unfavorable, the interim benefits shall not be considered an overpayment of benefits.
Of course I understand that there may be disagreements with this bill. However, I believe the principles behind it, by creating benchmarks for the VA, are sound and will go a long way in improving claims processing.
I believe that as the veterans' population continues to age, and disabled veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we must look for solutions that go beyond merely adding more claims representatives.
I look forward to hearing what others have to say about House Resolution 1444 and the other three bills before this Subcommittee.
[Mr. Hall also submitted a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, entitled "Veterans Affairs: The Appeal Process for Veterans' Claims," Updated April 9, 2007, by Douglas Reid Weimer, Legislative Attorney, American Law Division, which appears in the Appendix.]
[The statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]
I will now yield to Mr. Lamborn, our Ranking Member, for an opening statement.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for recognizing me and for holding this hearing.
I am here today to learn about the legislation before us and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses and my colleagues on the Subcommittee.
Our first bill, House Resolution 67, the "Veterans Outreach Improvement Act of 2007," has my full support. One of the most persistent challenges we face is communicating to veterans and their families the existence of benefits they may have earned.
This bill funds outreach by State and local governments which have proven capable incubators for effective public policy. Perhaps some of their innovations could be useful at the Federal level. This legislation also sends VA a signal that Congress expects strong and effective outreach to our veterans.
Our second bill, House Resolution 1435, the Department of "Veterans Affairs Claims Reduction Act of 2007," could make a big difference in reducing claims backlog. This bill would fund a pilot program to allow properly-trained County Veteran Service Officers to develop claims.
This inter-governmental partnering could speed up the adjudication process, improve accuracy, and enhance the linkages between governmental layers as they serve veterans. I believe this is good policy. In fact, Mr. Chairman, I would support including in this pilot State and Municipal Veteran Service Officers.
To ensure that veterans get quality results, I also suggest that service officers are certified by VA. This approach has already been tried with considerable success. A 2002 pilot program between the New York State Division of Veterans Affairs and the Buffalo, New York VA Regional Office showed that this concept could reduce claim development time and improve accuracy. The concept is sound.
Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing more about House Resolution 1444 and 1490. I am concerned that these bills could create unfortunate and unintentional consequences, and fail to solve the fundamental problems they are intended to address.
House Resolution 1444 would provide veterans $500 per month if their compensation and pension claim was remanded by the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veteran Claims or by the Board for Veterans Appeals and it has been over 180 days since the date of the remand. There is no recoup mechanism for this money if it is determined the veteran does not qualify to receive it.
House Resolution 1490 would give veterans the median amount of compensation for a claim based on a brief statement of evidence until their claim has been adjudicated. The bill also directs the Secretary to audit a percentage of these claims for accuracy and fraud.
Mr. Chairman, I understand that the intent of these bills is to reduce the backlog. It seems to me that both bills are what could be called "frustration legislation" written out of sheer and justified frustration with a faulty system.
I suggest that it is better to instead concentrate on fixing VBA's systematic problems within the claims processing system. I believe it is within our power working with the VA to do that without making payments to people who may not have earned them and potentially creating an incentive for misrepresentation.
Mr. Chairman, part of the problem is one of access for veterans to VA expertise. Some veterans are simply unaware that they may have grounds for a claim. That is why I am happy to announce that today I have introduced House Resolution 1863.
This bill would require VA to conduct a pilot project that would provide mobile claims processing stations that would travel within a given VA Regional Office's area of responsibility, providing veterans with outreach, help on their claims, and also collecting feedback for use in systemic improvements.
And today I also introduced House Resolution 1864. This is another piece of legislation that could have a significant impact on the claims backlog. It authorizes a pilot program for an automated rules-based system that could improve decision making on simpler claims issues and thus freeing up highly-trained claims developers and adjudicators to work the more difficult issues.
The bill authorizes $5 million per year for four years for the project. It would permit VA to contract for development and implement the system in not less than two Regional Offices.
A rating produced in this manner, because the bill does not call for changing the current rating system, but would make decisions within that system more efficient, would thus contribute significantly to reducing the backlog.
And that, Mr. Chairman, I think is what we're all truly after, and I yield back.
[The statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
I look forward to learning more about H.R. 1863 and H.R. 1864 and I think you are right on the money when you said that this is what all of our efforts are aimed at.
So after our colleagues on the first panel have finished giving their testimony, Members will be recognized for five minutes to make opening remarks or to ask questions for five minutes.
And now we will ask our first panel for their testimony, and thank you for coming this morning. You each have a busy schedule, so we will try to get you processed as quickly as we can through our process.
Mr. McIntyre from North Carolina, we will start with you, please.
STATEMENTS OF HON. MIKE McINTYRE, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA; HON. JOE BACA, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA; HON. JOE DONNELLY, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF INDIANA; AND HON. FRED UPTON, A REPRESENTATIVE IN CONGRESS FROM THE STATE OF MICHIGAN
Mr. McINTYRE. Thank you, sir. Thank you, Mr. Chairman and to the Ranking Member and to all the members of the Committee. I am honored and privileged to have this opportunity to testify before you today about the "Veterans Outreach Improvement Act," House Resolution 67.
This bill has been endorsed by and was written with the assistance of the National Association of County Veteran Service Officers and enjoys widespread support nationwide in our report to Congress.
The "Veterans Outreach Improvement Act" would address three important areas which I will summarize for you. First, coordination; second, local grants; and, third, resources.
The bill would require the Secretary of the VA to establish a plan to coordinate outreach activities within the Department and would authorize $25 million annually for three years that would be used to provide grants to State and local governments for outreach purposes.
By empowering our local Veterans Service Offices on the local level throughout the Nation, we would get more bang for our buck literally to locate veterans and assist them in receiving the benefits they deserve.
First, the coordination aspect. The "Veterans Outreach Improvement Act" would require the Secretary to establish and annually review a plan to coordinate outreach activities within the Department. Currently various organizations have trouble accessing veterans' records even if the organization is accredited by the VA.
Second, with regard to the outreach grants, many veterans, spouses, and widows of veterans are unaware of the benefits that they are entitled to through the VA. We spend so much time debating here in Congress ways to help our veterans.
I know I have 66,000 veterans in southeastern North Carolina sandwiched in between the areas roughly from Fort Bragg to Camp Lejeune. Yet, many of our veterans, especially in rural areas like I live in, do not even realize the full panoply of benefits that they are entitled to.
According to a Knight Ridder report, as many as two million poor veterans or their widows may not be receiving of the $22 billion annually in pensions to which they are already entitled. Other estimates suggest that only 30 percent of veterans receive the benefits for which they are eligible. So this is the back part of the tragedy.
Number one, we have got to make sure we are doing right by our veterans, which I am sure we would all agree on. But, number two, are we educating and reaching out to make sure they understand and can access what those benefits are?
Unfortunately, too many of our military personnel came back from overseas, they get lost in the shuffle when they leave the Department of Defense healthcare system and enter into the VA system. There are currently increased efforts underway to improve the seamless transition, but many veterans unfortunately have already fallen through the cracks and this would reach out to both the new veterans as well as those who may have already, of course, served our country and have fallen through the cracks.
This bill, House Resolution 67, would establish a program for the VA Secretary to provide grants to States for outreach activities, establish cooperative relationships, and assist in the development of veterans' benefits claims.
States may award portions to local governments. If no local veteran service program is available in a certain community, then States may use funds from grants to operate in place of a local agency or to establish a local program.
And then, third, in addition to coordination and outreach, resources are critically important. This bill, House Resolution 67, authorizes $25 million annually for the next three fiscal years. This is one dollar per veteran.
This bill's funding allocation could be used by State or local governments for several key purposes such as establishing education and training for State and local government employees for accreditation to provide these outreach services. Another would be improving existing offices by being able to hire additional staff. And, third, allowing the Veteran Service Offices to purchase advertising space or, I know in rural areas such as I live in, establishing transportation programs for veterans to be able to travel and get the healthcare they deserve.
In conclusion, I know that we all agree that our commitment to our veterans should be top priority. To allow at least a dollar per veteran, the 25 million we are talking about, to reach out to let them know potentially, as I mentioned earlier, of the 22 billion dollars in pensions that they might be entitled to, I think is a dollar well spent for each of our veterans and the very least we could do to help them.
Our veterans deserve the benefits they have earned. It is our obligation to make sure they know what those benefits are and have the assistance in developing their claims. That is why I encourage the Subcommittee to give this bill its full consideration.
I look forward to working with each of you and with our Nation's veterans and veteran's organizations. And in particular, I want to thank Ann Knowles, who is the National President of the County Veteran Service Organizations from Sampson County in our district, the 7th District of North Carolina, who will also be here testifying today.
Thank you, and God bless you, Mr. Chairman.
[The statement of Congressman McIntyre appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman, and God bless you too. And thank you for that eloquent description of your laudable proposal.
And we will ask Congressman Baca to go next.
Mr. BACA. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Lamborn and members of the Subcommittee, for holding this important hearing today.
Earlier this year, I have introduced House Resolution 1434 to help reduce the veterans' claim backlog which is an issue that I have been concerned about for many years. These are benefits that veterans have earned. And I speak as a veteran who has served in both the 101st and 82nd Airborne.
As you already know, there are almost one million backlog, and I state, one million backlog claims pending at the Veterans Administration. That is appalling to me when we look at veterans and we look at one million backlog already at the Administration.
The average claim takes about six months to process and appeal takes two years, bear that in mind, of a veteran who has served our country who has returned. Many of these claims are for older veterans who live month to month, need urgent medical attention.
An article on the backlog ran in last week's Washington Post describing World War II veteran Seymour, Seymour Lewis, who lost hearing in the line of duty in 1944. Seymour Lewis waited five years, waited five years for the VA to give him an answer for his disability claim. That is five years that he waited. His claim was still pending when he died, when he died last year at the age of 80.
This tragedy is not isolated incident. It is happening across the country and it is going to get worse, it is only going to get worse. The current backlog does not include the veterans who will be returning soon from Iraq and Afghanistan.
GAO expects over 600,000 new claims will be filed from these two wars in the next five years alone. Bear that in mind when you think about what we have and the responsibility that we have to our veterans.
It is clear that we need to act now to fix this problem before the system breaks down. I am proud of House Resolution 1435 because I truly believe it would help reduce the backlog and make the difference in the lives of veterans, make the difference in the lives of veterans that deserve the benefits that they have earned.
House Resolution 1435 is based on legislation I carried last year in Congress to reduce the backlog. However, this is a completely new bill that incorporates new ideas while addressing some of the past concerns.
House Resolution 1435 is a fiscally responsible bill that has built-in accountability and provides viable service to our veterans. This bill will establish a three-year pilot project in five States that would allow the County Veteran Service to help develop backlog claims and we may even take in the consideration of our Minority Ranking Member that suggested State municipals.
The five States, California, Florida, Ohio, and South Carolina, and Texas, were picked based on the extent of the County Veteran Service network, the veteran population in these States because we wanted a good sample of both large and small States in different regions of the county.
Under the pilot program, the VA will identify the backlog claim that need further development, refer these claims to the veterans' nearest County Veteran Service Officers. The VA will also identify what information is needed to evaluate the claims so that the CVSOs can collect the proper information for the veterans.
The CVSO will then work with the veterans and any other established power of attorney to fully develop the claims and that is working with other entities, too, as well. Once the claim is fully developed, it will be returned to the VA ready for evaluation and that is all of us working to help veterans. And that is the important thing, all of us working jointly together.
At the end of the pilot program, the Secretary will submit the report to Congress showing how many claims each State started and ended with as well as how many were successfully processed so that we can see if the program actually worked.
I am still waiting on a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. However, I believe that this is a cost-effective bill because the program is using existing county employees to help reduce the VA claims backlog, that is using existing county employees.
House Resolution 35 also addresses some of the past concerns. For instance, this bill will bring Veteran Service Organizations such as the VFW and DAV into the process and clearly direct the CVSOs to work with any veterans' group with the establishment of power of attorney in development of claims. We want the CVSOs and veterans and the power of attorneys to work as a team, as I stated before, to work as a team.
Secondly, we made this into a pilot program so that we can try the ideas first and see if they really work to reduce the backlog.
Thirdly, House Resolution 35 supports the VA's mission to increase the number of claims evaluators. And I know that that is very important to a lot of us because I visited Walter Reed not too long ago and it is important that we have true evaluators and people that can actually write the claims.
The pilot program provides the Department with VA accreditation to help provide the claims while the Department focuses on increasing staff that can evaluate the claims once they are submitted. To me, House Resolution 35 seems to be a common-sense approach that will reduce the backlog and utilize qualified government employees who already work on our veterans in 37 States across the country.
Once again, I would like to thank Chairman Hall and Ranking Member Lamborn and members of the Subcommittee for giving me the opportunity to speak on this legislation. Thank you very much, and I know that my time has run out.
[The statement of Congressman Baca appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman. You used it well.
Mr. DONNELLY. Thank you, Chairman Hall and Ranking Member Lamborn and other members of the Committee. Thank you for calling this hearing today and for the opportunity to speak on House Resolution 1490 introduced by Congressman Upton and myself and the need for new approaches to address the claims backlog and to also help America's vets cope with what is frequently a months-long process to get the benefits they deserve.
The problem is well documented. We have a benefit system in place that is struggling to keep up with the growing load of disability claims cases. Right now a veteran filing a new claim can expect an almost six-month wait until they find out whether that claim is approved. If they appeal, they can expect their case to drag on for nearly two more years.
Unfortunately, this is a problem that is likely to get worse before better. As you know, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the ratio of soldiers wounded to killed is sixteen to one, the highest of any war in our Nation's history. With so many new and future veterans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a wave of new claims we must prepare for in addition to the 180,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have already applied for disability benefits.
Estimates are that over the next five years, OEF and OIF veterans could file 638,000 new claims for benefits. I believe the VA is trying to do the very best it can under the current system. Claims workers are dedicated individuals working hard to see that our vets are able to get the proper service and benefits deserving their service and sacrifice.
I look forward to working with my fellow colleagues on the Veterans' Affairs Committee to make sure that VBA has the resources and staff in place to provide for accurate and timely claims adjudication.
I also look forward to working with the VA and the Department of Defense to provide for a seamless transition from active duty to veteran status. However, I believe we must also explore more innovative approaches to address the fundamental shortcomings of the current claims process.
New veterans often leave the service to an uncertain future. Sometimes just weeks from the battlefield they must find a job, a place to live, and find medical care. Many older veterans are on fixed incomes. For many disabled veterans, their benefits and disability compensation are a critical part of their ability to meet the needs of their families and make ends meet.
It is our veterans who pay the price both emotional and financial for the long time that it takes to process a claim. I know there are a number of factors to explain in part why claims approval times are long and why the backlog has increased.
However, we must do something to get veterans some assistance on the front end while they wait for the VA to make a determination. Just explaining the delay does not help our veterans to pay the bills and put food on the table. We need to expedite benefits to help veterans get by while their claims are considered.
Currently approximately 88 percent of veterans' claims are ultimately approved by the VA. This would suggest that the vast majority of claims filed by veterans are done so accurately and truthfully by men and women who are seeking compensation and benefits for very real conditions. They have already sacrificed for their country.
I believe our veterans have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their claims on disability benefits. Congressman Upton and I introduced House Resolution 1490 to provide veterans that benefit of the doubt when it comes to their claims.
This bill would approve new disability claims up front through an expedited process and direct the VA to audit a percentage of those claims to ensure accuracy and to deter and detect fraud. Those claims that have already been denied or are currently in the appeal process would not be included in this new process.
Essentially a vet who can provide proof of service and minimal supporting evidence for their claim would meet with a VA claims worker to identify the proper disability and benefit they are filing for. Unless the VA or claims worker determines there is sufficient evidence to the contrary, the VA would approve the veteran's claim at a median benefit for that type of disability and the veteran would immediately become eligible for benefits.
Benefits awarded through this benefit of the doubt approach could be changed by the VA once a more appropriate level of benefits is determined. However, until that happens, veterans would still be able to get a benefit for a claim which they are requesting.
House Resolution 1490 would direct the VA to ensure that an adequate number of claims workers are assigned to assist in carrying this out. The burden of proof will be shifted from the disabled veteran to the VA.
I have a little bit more written testimony, but I would like to sum up by this.
Our veterans have served and served heroically. When they come home, they and their families should not have to suffer because we are not able to process our claims more quickly. We are doing everything we can to process them more quickly, but that does not help to feed families and to take care of their needs.
We are asking that House Resolution 1490 be considered to help meet that goal and to help take care of our veterans and give them the benefit of the doubt they have earned through their service.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Lamborn, and members of the Committee.
[The statement of Congressman Donnelly appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman Donnelly.
And we will now recognize Congressman Upton for his testimony.
Mr. UPTON. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. And I have a full statement for the record, which I will submit, and I will not use the full five minutes granted to me.
I just want to thank Congressman Joe Donnelly. He has been a friend. And House Resolution 1490, which we jointly introduced, with Joe being the prime sponsor, indeed is bipartisan. And if you look at the list of cosponsors, you will see also that is bipartisan.
Let us face it. The current system is broken. In fact, it is more than broken, it is shameful. I frankly cannot imagine the nightmare that is shared by so many of our vets coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of them have a spouse. That spouse perhaps has worked one, two, maybe even three jobs. Chances are they have kids. He or she has a job maybe that they cannot return to. They have a mortgage and pending bills. And to think that they have to wait six months to have that claim processed on average or two years, as it has been indicated, for an appeal is just outrageous.
Last month, Newsweek documented exactly what our veterans are going through. And I have to say it sent shock waves across the country. More than 400,000 cases are backlogged. A Harvard study was cited in that story that I was able to get and read.
And as Joe indicated today, we have sixteen injured vets for every one that is killed. In Vietnam and Korea, it was two and a half, primarily because we have much better medical care than we had 20, 30 years ago.
But it is an interesting fact, 43 percent, 43 percent of the vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan file for disability. Ninety percent of those are ultimately approved. So what our bill does is two things.
One, it provides the median benefit for that disability level on day one. Now, the second thing that it does, it allows the Veterans Administration to go back and audit to make sure that there is not fraud and abuse, to make sure that there is not false claims by having a check and balance to make sure that not everybody files when in fact it may be not necessary or right.
We allow the Veterans Administration to pick whatever percentage they want. It can be a hundred percent. It can be ten percent. It is whatever they deem correct to make sure that, in fact, the claims are appropriate and are correct.
I would conclude by saying this. America now knows the problems suffered by our vets when they come back with service-connected injuries. This Committee knows what those problems are. They have been aptly identified.
This Committee and this Congress has a responsibility to the families as well as to the service men and women that return that have a service-connected injury. The current system has got to change and you all have a task to try and bring it before the full House where we can support it on a bipartisan basis.
I support my colleague and neighbor, Mr. Donnelly, whose district adjoins mine, in this venture. I am delighted that he serves on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. And I look forward to working with all of you to shepherd the right changes so that our men and women are served correctly by the United States Government.
I yield back my time.
[The statement of Congressman Upton appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman.
I will just ask a brief question or two and then yield to the Ranking Member and we will try to get around the rest of the Subcommittee.
Regarding House Resolution 67, Congressman McIntyre, do you anticipate that the legislation might cause State legislatures to reduce their current funding authorizations for veterans' programs?
Mr. McINTYRE. I did not hear part of your question. Do I anticipate that what?
Mr. HALL. That House Resolution 67—
Mr. McINTYRE. Yes, sir.
Mr. HALL. —may cause State legislators or legislatures to reduce their funding authorizations?
Mr. McINTYRE. Oh, no, not at all. If anything, this supplements and enhances what they have to offer because this is an additional way to say from the Federal level we are trying to help the county and State organizations do their outreach.
And at the rate of a dollar per veteran, as I mentioned earlier, I would not foresee any State legislature using that as an excuse not to reach out or to fund what they need to do by virtue of their own veterans. In fact, I think that would have backfire ramifications if any State legislature attempted to do that.
Mr. HALL. I would hope so, too, but I also know having just come back from my district, as we all have, that there is some financial problems at the State and local levels.
And I guess another way of putting it would be do you think it would be productive or would you consider the idea of including in the bill a requirement that the States in question not reduce their funding to veterans' programs?
Mr. McINTYRE. We would be open to that type of amendment, yes, sir.
Mr. HALL. Thank you.
And regarding H.R. 1435, Congressman Baca, have you heard from the States and the CVSOs their position on this bill?
Mr. BACA. The National Association of County Veteran Organizations fully endorse and support this bill, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the State understand that CVSOs are already helping veterans prepare their claims every day. And the added benefit of the pilot program will not only help tackle this backlog, but it will also allow the CVOs to do a better job by providing them with the information they need.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman.
And lastly I want to ask Mr. Donnelly and Mr. Upton, have you seen anything in your research in the process of putting this legislation together which would predict a number for fraudulent claims and what steps are either taken in the bill or do you foresee taking to make sure that does not happen?
Mr. UPTON. I just want to say the way we wrote it, you know, they have got a better hand. I do not know what that percentage ought to be and we left it purely at their discretion. So they could review five percent of the cases. If they think that there ought to be more than that, you know, 25.
We wrote the legislation so that the folks actually watching these claims, who knows, you know, whatever the situation, and we leave that fully in their hands to decide what that percentage ought to be.
And I think, frankly, as not an expert on veterans' care issues, I think until you have a better idea, and perhaps you do, that we ought to start with the VA deciding what that percentage ought to be.
Mr. DONNELLY. And, Mr. Chairman, at the present time, approximately 88 percent of the veterans' claims are ultimately approved. So that is nine out of ten. And I guess I have faith in the integrity of our veterans that after serving our country, they will conduct themselves—
Mr. HALL. I do too. I am just playing devil's advocate for a minute.
Mr. DONNELLY. Oh, absolutely, sir.
Mr. HALL. And I support the intention of the legislation. Human nature being what it is, once it is—
Mr. DONNELLY. Right.
Mr. HALL. —advertised that a claim will be, you know, that a median amount, if this legislation were to become law, would be paid, one can imagine that perhaps there would be more claims filed. But I am just curious whether—
Mr. DONNELLY. And that is why we included the auditing process—
Mr. HALL. Right.
Mr. DONNELLY. —and the VA's ability to that.
Mr. HALL. Which I support.
Okay. Thank you, and I yield to our Ranking Member.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Congressman Baca, in connection with House Resolution 1435, would you support adding State Veteran Service Officers or other qualified government entities such as Municipal Service Officers to the pilot program described in your legislation?
Mr. BACA. I think that is something that we have got to consider because it is a team effort to make sure that we do take care of our veterans. And that is the bottom line is that we need to make sure that the benefits that they are entitled to, that they receive those. If there are other entities that we can work together to assure that they receive the service in a timely fashion, we have got to do that.
Mr. LAMBORN. Okay. Thank you.
And, Congressman Donnelly, in connection with House Resolution 1490, you stated in your testimony that benefits awarded through this benefit of the doubt approach could be changed by the VA once a more appropriate level of benefits is determined.
Can you explain what you mean by determined? And the reason I ask that is because after a monetary award is given, I am wondering is the claim then sent through the regular claims process and, if so, I cannot help drawing the conclusion but that we might have a need for more VA adjudicators because we are adding one step to the whole process? Could you explain mechanically how that would work?
Mr. UPTON. Yeah. We asked the legislative counsel to draft this based on the Harvard study that was out and I think that perhaps relates to the—you know, right now the VA is being swamped and perhaps if legislation like this moves through the process that they would not have the backlog, certainly the claims process would be expedited in a major way.
And the way that the folks at legislative counsel suggest by providing I think what you are asking is the median level of benefit, that is so that in essence it can start off for that wounded soldier returning and ultimately it is decided through the process whether it perhaps should be above the median level or below.
But we allow the VA to make that determination. I think that stays with the legislation that we have and it was through the council looking at the Harvard study that actually came up with the language.
Does that answer your question?
Mr. LAMBORN. Yeah. Thank you. That certainly helps.
And for either one of you, once again on 1490, my last question, you say that there would be some level of fraud, hopefully minimal, but do you have any idea on what the dollar amount connected with that would be?
Mr. UPTON. I do not know what it is. And for me, you know, I once worked at the Office of Management and Budget and I once chaired the Oversight Investigation Subcommittee at Energy and Commerce. There is fraud and abuse that is out there, in every Federal program period. And we need to make sure that the tools are present to go after it and to let people know that when they defraud the government, try and rip it off, in fact there is a good chance that they will get caught and that there will be redress made.
And the reason why I feel that it is very important to have the provision to allow the VA to audit those cases is because we know some people will try to cheat. And by having this safety valve there, I think it diminishes that and protects the taxpayers' rights at the same time, that the veterans that clearly are deserving do not have to wait six months before they get a benefit or two years if it is in appeal.
Mr. LAMBORN. Thank you.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
On House Resolution 67 and House Resolution 1435, let me first of all congratulate both of you on those efforts. And I will mention a little bit on the others because I know that in that particular area we are having difficulty in terms of the need for the outreach that is required and needed.
And I remember joining with the Vietnam Veterans of America, with a letter to Secretary Principi on the VA's stance. That we should not educate our veterans or not reach out to our veterans to let them know about the services that were available.
Let me ask you, Congressman McIntyre, regarding my understanding of the budget estimate on House Resolution 67, that it is about $25 million?
Mr. McINTYRE. Twenty-five million annually over the next three fiscal years.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Okay. And, Congressman Baca, on yours, do you know what the estimated cost is?
Mr. BACA. At this point, we do not know what the estimated cost is going to be because, remember, we are incorporating the bill with what is currently in existence right now. So it would actually be a cost effectiveness because this would be taking in the county employees that would already be there. And if we took into consideration the State and municipality, these are already employees that would already be in place.
It is just allowing someone to provide a service to our veterans to handle the backlog of casework that needs to be done so we would be able to expedite the process because the applications sometimes where there is a question that is not answered that needs to be answered, we would have someone that would be able to provide that information, get it back to the VA, process that application in time to ensure that that individual then received his or her benefit.
So we need that person to provide that information. It would be a team effort versus if it just waits for the VA because right now the VA lacks the amount of staff that they need and hopefully that they can create the additional staff.
But, meanwhile, we would use another entity to make sure that we would be able to provide the kind of information and make sure that that veteran receives the benefit that he or she needs by doing this. So it would use existing staff that is already currently there by the county government.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Thank you.
And I notice the language there authorized such sums as necessary to conduct the pilot programs, although I think the VA has indicated that that might cost up to $69 million. I guess they are high-balling it or I am not sure exactly what that is based on. I guess on how big that particular project is in your proposal.
On House Resolution 1444 and 1490, I also feel the same way you do. I am just frustrated and the benefit of the doubt in this case ought to go to the veteran. The veteran, I think, should have received it and they passed away and never got it, you know.
Let me ask you. Do we know if the VA, because I do not know and I guess we will have a chance to ask them later on, if they do get the benefits, if it is retroactive from the time they made the application or not?
Mr. DONNELLY. I do not know the answer to that, Congressman Rodriguez.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Okay.
Mr. UPTON. But I would just note, though, you have got cases documented, suicidal, I mean all those different things. I've talked to a number of wounded veterans and they are just beside themselves that they have to figure out how to maintain themselves without the benefit, you know, maybe they are still in care, they are not able to go back to their job, I mean all those different things, and not really know if their claim may or may not be approved.
So this relieves that from the very onset, in essence, on average six months before they normally would see a check.
Mr. DONNELLY. And what this does, Congressman, is when you are looking at your two or three children and you are trying to figure out how you are going to be able to meet the needs after you have been disabled, this helps to solve that problem a little bit. And it is a position that the veteran should not be placed in, is placed in this position through no fault of his or her own. And so it is an attempt to try to make the situation right.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Let me thank you for your proposal and if VA does not come up with any other that sounds more reasonable than what we have now, it sounds like a good idea to do. So thank you very much.
Thank you, sir.
Mr. UPTON. We would love to put you down as a cosponsor.
Mr. RODRIGUEZ. Okay. Thank you very much.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman.
The Chair will now recognize Congressman Bilirakis.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Hit your microphone button there, please.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Congressman Baca, my staff has discussed your legislation with some of the County Service Officers in my district. Based on these conversations, it's our understanding that the County Service Officers—you alluded to this somewhat—the officers in Florida go through a certification process and are already developing veterans' claims.
How many States have County Service officers who are processing claims at this particular time?
Mr. BACA. There are 37 States that currently operate right now. And what we are doing is asking for five States to use it as the pilot project right now to determine the effects of how we would be able to handle the claims during that period of time. And then we would also look at the possibility of amending the legislation if, in fact, it took in State and municipalities, too, as well in that claims process.
But there are 37 States, so we are looking at just looking at veterans that need to process the application because there is a backlog that needs to be handled. There is over a million and some backlog right now.
As I stated before, we have not even dealt with those that are going to be returning back from Iraq and Afghanistan, too, as well, and a life that is lost on someone that should have received their benefit because that claim was not processed in a timely fashion.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Yeah. They had questions. Thank you very much. The service officers want to know what the pilot program will do as opposed to what they are already doing. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? I know you touched on it.
Mr. BACA. Well, the pilot program in those States will determine the accuracy of determining how we will handle the claims. We will get back in a timely fashion and report back to Congress how many claims we are able to handle, we are able to process those claims, because currently right now under the current process that we do have is some of the information that is inaccurate.
The CVSOs will be able to get accurate information, gather that data, gather that information, submit it back, and say we were able to process it in a timely fashion because right now it would take anywhere between six months to two years to process that claim. So we would reduce that.
So the study would indicate that in the claims, we reduce the amount of claims that it takes to handle a claim, so that study will determine a claim that was processed to say we handled it in less than six months to two years in a service that was accurate and benefit to the individual. So this way, we do not have to read in the paper like we did in the Washington Post saying that someone died because we failed to answer their response. We would then be able to get accurate information to say we responded to that claim within a period of time by utilizing another entity whether it was the county, the State, or municipality in getting the information because sometimes all it does is just take one information that is not there and by the time you get to the VA, it is impossible to get that information.
Now you have got a county entity that is local in your area that can get the information directly about what is missing in the application and then you file that to the VA. Then they process that application. Now we have something on record.
Mr. BILIRAKIS. Okay. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. HALL. Thank you, Congressman.
Mr. HARE. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing today.
Let me thank all of my colleagues for the legislation that you have introduced. I share with my colleague, Mr. Upton, I saw the Newsweek article, too, and we started this process, you know, behind and we are falling farther behind. I do not think we have any time anymore. And I just want to commend all of you for introducing legislation. And if am not on it, I will get on it really quickly. I can tell you that.
I just want to say a couple of things. I do not know why it seems the burden has to be on our veterans to prove that there is a problem with 88 percent, almost nine out of ten. I think we have an obligation to err on the side of our veterans. I know people will take advantage, as you said. I know there a few that might. But the vast majority of people are not going to do it.
I just did a Marine Corps League State meeting in my district and that was the first question asked by these folks, why in heaven's name is it taking so long, to even get the claim and then to get the claim on the appeal process, sometimes upward, I think someone said three years, which is—two years, which is unconscionable to me that we are doing this to our veterans. So I just want to commend you all for it.
And let me just say to my colleagues on House Resolution 67, that the funding of this, just to put this all in perspective, we can fund this, if my math is correct, at $11 million an hour that we are spending on the current war, we could fund each year at two hours and fifteen minutes of what we are spending. And I clearly think that that is not a bad deal in terms of where we can put our priorities.
I wanted to ask you, if I might, Mr. McIntyre, you talked about in your bill, and I have a rural district, too, with a lot of veterans, and I am interested if you maybe would expand a little bit on what your bill will do to help transportation for veterans of rural communities because a lot of them simply do not have access to getting the kind of help that they need.
Mr. McINTYRE. Well, that is part of the flexibility in coordinating with State and local Veteran Service Offices and organizations where the need is greatest and they could use that to tar