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Ranking Member Bost Delivers Opening Remarks at Hearing to Examine VA’s Progress on PACT Act Implementation

Today, Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.), the Ranking Member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, delivered the following opening remarks, as prepared, at the start of today’s oversight hearing to assess the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) progress regarding implementation of S. 3373, the SFC Heath Robinson Honoring Our PACT Act, comprehensive toxic exposure healthcare and benefits legislation:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Good morning, everyone.

Thank you to our witnesses for being here to discuss V.A.’s progress towards implementing the PACT Act.

D.O.D estimates that 3.5 million veterans have been exposed to dangerous toxins over the past 20 years.

Thousands of veterans have reported becoming sick as a result of that exposure.

Unfortunately, the V.A. has been slow in providing them with earned healthcare and benefits.

I am proud that Congress worked in a bipartisan, bicameral manner to finally pass the PACT Act.

However, signing the bill into law was only the first step.

Now we have to make sure that V.A. implements the bill correctly.

When we debated the PACT Act earlier this year, I raised concerns about V.A.’s ability to roll-out PACT without severely disrupting services for veterans.

Following changes to the bill that provided V.A. with the resources to address operational impacts, Secretary McDonough assured us that he could execute it without crippling existing operations.

I intend to hold the Secretary to his word.

Our veterans have waited far too long for V.A. to fall short now.

Today, I want to discuss how V.A. plans to address the backlog of claims.

Although I am glad that the bill invests in modernizing the claims process, I am worried that V.A. is already behind the curve.

V.A. projects that it will take until February 2025 to work down the backlog.

To do so, V.A. is relying on an aggressive hiring effort and mandatory overtime.

Unfortunately, many of these new hires won’t be able to put a dent in the backlog until they are fully trained.

Furthermore, mandatory overtime is costly and can lead to employee burn out.

Simply put, this is not a sustainable, long-term solution.

I am also worried that we are less than a month away from V.A.’s go-live date for PACT Act claims, and V.A. still hasn’t published the training letter for existing employees.

That said, I appreciate that V.A. has been piloting some new technology to process claims.

While the Department may call this automation, my staff has seen first-hand that it is not automation, but rather an early set of tools intended to eliminate menial tasks.

In fact, employees at the Boise Regional Office reported that while they appreciate the potential, they need to be further developed to become truly useful and save time.

V.A. is just scratching the surface.

Claims processers deserve the most advanced software used in the financial industry to make their jobs easier and increase their productivity.

I would also like to focus on how V.A. plans to reduce wait times for care.

As of September 30, 2022, there were approximately 8.9 million veterans enrolled in the V.A. health care system, and 7.3 million are getting care.

V.A. estimates that the PACT Act could expand healthcare eligibility to an additional 5 million veterans.

V.A. continues to be challenged by their appointment referral and scheduling processes.

As the toxic exposure screening is rolled out across the system, I would like to know how V.A. intends to act on identifying and treating what could be a growing number of health conditions.

I am eager to hear how V.A. plans to use its new hiring authorities to recruit and hire talent.

I also would like to know what has already been done with these authorities and the status on any pending hiring timelines.

Finally, I want to remind everyone how important it is that we resolve the scoring problem created by the Cost of War Toxic Exposure Fund.

As I have mentioned before, if action is not taken, the Committee will use up its offsets and be unable to advance a wide range of legislation next Congress.

I offered a solution, and I welcome anyone with a constructive proposal.

We cannot delay fixing the fund.

With that Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

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