Opening Statement of The Honorable Dina Titus, Ranking Minority Member, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Thank you, Mr. Chairman for holding this hearing today on behalf of our nation’s veterans.
Today, we will look into the performance of programs that VA and DoD utilizes to determine ill or injured servicemembers fit for duty status, as well as programs designed to expedite the adjudication of separating servicemembers claims. Particularly we will focus on the Integrated Disability Evaluation System (IDES), the Benefits Delivery at Discharge program (BDD) and the Quick Start Program.
All of these programs have now been up and running for a number of years. IDES was initiated in 2007 in follow-up to poor conditions and fragmented care that our Servicemembers were receiving at Walter Reed Army Hospital.
BDD was launched in 1995 as a pilot, and fully launched in 1998. The intent of BDD is to assist disabled servicemembers in making a seamless and successful transition to civilian life by allowing them to get their claim completed as early as possible while they have their medical information readily available and it is clear that there is a nexus between their disability and military service.
Quick Start was launched in 2008, is similar in nature to BDD, and was established to provide an expedited disability benefits process to servicemembers that will be discharged within 59 days.
Despite having been long established, and the intent and need to assist our servicemembers transition into civilians, all three of these programs continue to be fraught with challenges and are performing far below expectations.
The one similarity that all of these programs have is that they all suffer from continued poor timeliness on behalf of VBA in adjudicating these claims. BDD and Quick Start have particularly seen a drop off in the number of claims filed under the program. In our Committee oversight travel, we have heard VA employees and VSO’s alike suggest that participating in these programs will actually increase the time it takes for a veteran to receive an outcome on their case versus their intent to reduce it. The programs have also started to draw their own mantras amongst employees and veteran advocates such as “Quick Start, Slow Finish.”
In meeting with the VAOIG they have highlighted that eliminating the backlog has started to come at the price of other benefits and claims such as IDES, Quick Start and BDD, being moved to the back burner. The IG also highlights concerning disparities between VA’s internal determinations of accuracy via STAR reviews and the accuracy levels that they have found in their reviews. I believe the timeliness metrics in combination with the VAOIG’s findings speak for themselves, BDD, IDES, and Quick Start are simply not a VA priority.
With regards to IDES, our committee continues to receive constant emails from servicemembers. They all generally have the same ask, “I am in the Army, and I am waiting for a rating decision from the DRAS (D-RAZ) in Seattle, Washington, I need my VA rating so that I can get out of the military so that my family and I can move on with our lives.” Many of them have emphasized a negative impact that the IDES process has had on them and their relationships with their families.
Our staff has witnessed firsthand the poor culture that is often prevalent at IDES stations and Wounded Warrior Battalions. I want to thank Ms. Gipson, an Army veteran who recently went through the process, and is with us here today, for highlighting the negative culture in IDES, amongst other issues, in her testimony.
I want to be clear about something with regards to the IDES process. There is no other process whereby VBA is holding individuals’ lives, our Nation’s injured servicemen and women, in bureaucratic limbo based on their need to reach a decision. An Army Reservist that enters the VA Rating stage of the IDES process today will not get her decision back from the Seattle DRAS (D-RAZ) until November 26th. She likely joined the IDES process around February 17th, 2014 and will not complete the process until June 23rd, 2015.
As our servicemembers wait for a VA rating decision, they are often disconnected from their families who may be at the place they call home, which is often not the same location as the IDES processing facility.
As our servicemembers wait for a VA Rating decision, they and their spouses are often hesitant to take college courses or technical training as they do not know when or how the IDES process will end.
As our servicemembers wait for a VA rating decision, they and their spouses are often unable to accept or seek employment as they do not know when they will be discharged and when they will get back to the place they call home.
For all of these reasons, and most all because it is the right thing to do, VA needs to take a hard look at their resources pointed at IDES and say how do we get to our goals today and not tomorrow.
VA’s timeliness issues aside, I would also like to start the dialogue on looking at the IDES process from a new perspective. An angle that emphasizes the servicemembers, their families, and their transition, over the current process that emphasizes DoD’s need to determine if the servicemember is found “physically and mentally fit to perform their military duties,” or not.
My staff recently sat down to discuss this idea with DoD and we were surprised to learn that 95% of our nation’s servicemembers that enter into IDES are discharged through the program. Knowing that 19 out of 20 Servicemembers are going to be discharged how could we offer servicemembers that are selected to go into IDES with an alternative option?
An option that would allow them more geographic flexibility in their transition, an option that would give them more flexibility to accept a new employment position or pursue an educational degree. Again, with 95% of IDES servicemembers getting out, I think we have to ask ourselves are we focused on the right outcomes.
I think the 378 days that soldiers spend in IDES would be better utilized emphasizing transition through the right mixture of healing, education, and employment with fewer DoD requirements and increased access to assistance. A way that allows Servicemembers to heal from their injuries while growing their capacity for civilian employment.
In closing, these programs have been around for a long time for the right reasons. It is time that we prioritize these programs to do right by those who need it most, our ill and injured servicemembers that are transitioning.
I thank all of our esteemed witnesses for joining us today and look forward to hearing their testimony.
Thank you and I yield back.