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Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York

Thank you all for coming today. I am pleased that so many folks could attend this legislative hearing on H.R. 67, H.R. 1435, H.R. 1444 and H.R. 1490. Today, we are going to discuss 4 bills that will, if passed into law, impact the VA claims delivery system.

As most know, there are problems with the VA claims process.  And, I want to say at the onset that some of the problems associated with the process are beyond the control of the VA and the product of our on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Having said that, I must acknowledge that there is a growing claims backlog that has gone from 465,623 in 2004 to 525,270 in 2005 to 604,380 in 2006 to 647,857 in 2007.  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 printed an article entitled Delayed Benefits Frustrate Veterans, which I will be submitting for the record, detailing instances of veterans who literally have died while waiting for their claims to be processed.

To me, this is evidence of a broken system.  Whether you are one of the few remaining WW 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.  Finally, we will receive the opinions from the VA about their views on the legislation before us today.  I look forward to having a constructive conversation with all of our witnesses.

Before the first panel starts, I want to take a few moments to talk about H.R. 1444, a bill that I introduced and which is under consideration at today’s hearing.  H.R. 1444, in its simplest terms, requires 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 veterans’ 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 under the claim. 

If a final decision is favorable, the amount paid will be considered part of the back payment due the veteran.  If a 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 that the principles behind it, creating benchmarks, 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 H.R. 1444 and the other 3 bills before this Subcommittee.