Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Good Morning Ladies and Gentleman:
I welcome you today for our first hearing during the 111th Congress and I am pleased to be joined by my colleague, Harry Mitchell, chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee. We are also being joined by House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman, Bob Filner, who has been leading the way in making the VA an advocacy system instead of an adversarial one.
Congress’ accomplishments for veterans last year were great. I am eager to see implementation of P.L. 110-389, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 that will take steps in righting the many wrongs in the VA claims processing system. However, there is still much more room for improvement and this promises to be a very active Congress with a new Secretary we are eager to work with.
It is regrettable that we are starting this Congress with so many untoward problems within the VBA claims processing system making news headlines. In the last few months, we have tracked the problems brought to our attention with misdating of claims at the New York Regional Office, documents wrongly placed in shredder bins, and denying widows their survivor benefits.
The situation in New York was a clear attempt by managers to fudge performance numbers. The incorrectly entered data made the regional office look like it took fewer days to process claims than in actuality – yet still beyond acceptable levels to me - or to most veterans. Although veterans were not directly harmed by this practice, perpetrators of this kind of dishonesty impact the entire veterans’ community’s ability to trust the institution charged with its welfare. This is shameful!
On the heels of this revelation, there were reports of documents inappropriately placed in shredder bins -- documents needed to process claims or that should have been returned to the veteran were dumped for shredding. As a result, some veterans’ claims were harmed and adjudication did not properly take place. This is even more shameful!
And finally, we saw headlines about widows being cheated out of millions of dollars - over a 12 year period - while VA ignored Congress’ intent to help these very same widows. VA explains this oversight as a computer glitch. But again, it’s shameful!
The misdating, shredding, and glitches that the media recently reported, I am afraid, are only the tip of the iceberg. I have heard too many accounts from veterans and their survivors about missing, lost, or destroyed files, and VA sending them multiple requests for information then still not knowing where a file is or who had it last.
Even when the veteran or survivor has sent documents return receipt requested, VA manages to not know their whereabouts. Besides the infamous fire in St. Louis and the current shredding issue; claim folders have managed to be lost or destroyed in many other ways over the years. This has included records being misfiled or misplaced within a regional office or lost in transit between regional offices, medical, pension, insurance or debt management centers, the Board of Veterans Appeals, the Appeals Management Center, or the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims – not to mention the issues with Defense Department sharing. Even further beyond comprehension are the accusations by veterans and their families that VA employees would purposefully and maliciously destroy, falsify, or steal a claim folder to avoid granting a benefit.
A lot of VA employees touch a claim folder, but rarely is anyone held accountable or responsible when it is lost or destroyed. Furthermore, we are still talking about an outdated system that is heavily dependent upon paper records. So, it is easy to conceive how a paper document can be mishandled. An electronic system from application to adjudication could mitigate some of these losses - if properly implemented – unlike the way it was handled for widows expecting a month of death benefit or at the RO in New York. This is where new approaches to leadership and oversight are crucial and accountability is essential.
Today’s witnesses will provide us with an overview of these problems. We will hear from the veterans’ service organizations and the AFGE who will provide us with insights into how veterans and their dependents are harmed when VA mishandles their documents and how improvements can be made to the system.
Next, the VA Office of the Inspector General will share what it has learned about document mishandling. Finally, the Under Secretary for Benefits, and the Systematic Technical Accuracy Review Office will give us their feedback on these problems and hopefully will outline a strategic plan for the future that will correct the records mismanagement problems we have seen in the past. So, I am grateful that the Under Secretary is here himself today because the accountability issue begins with top leadership.
I have been on a track to modernize the VBA’s out of date claims processing system. I envision VA as an Agency that we as a nation are proud of in the way that it serves the welfare of our disabled veterans. When it comes to discharging those responsibilities, shameful acts are what should be archaic practices.