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Hon. Bill Johnson, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations

Good morning.  This hearing will come to order.

I want to welcome everyone to today’s legislative hearing on H.R. 2383, the Modernizing Notice to Claimants Act; H.R. 2243, the Veterans Employment Promotion Act; H.R. 2388, the Access to Timely Information Act; and H.R. 2470, the Ensuring Servicemembers' Electronic Records' Viability Act.

The bills we are discussing today are the result of months of input, work, research, and investigation.  The Modernizing Notice to Claimants Act, which I introduced last month, makes several important steps toward streamlining part of the claims process that will contribute toward reducing the disability claims backlog.  Section 5103 of Title 38 currently requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide a claimant a written notice of responsibility that informs both the veteran and the VA of their responsibilities regarding each claim.  Furthermore, as written, this law requires a separate written notice of responsibility for any subsequent claim, even if that subsequent claim is covered under the original pending claim.  Additionally, the section requires VA to “make a reasonable effort to obtain private records relevant to” a veteran’s claim.

The Modernizing Notice to Claimants Act would allow for the most efficient delivery method for any notice, including electronic written responses.  Additionally, the proposed changes will not require VA to provide an additional notice for a subsequent issue that is already covered under a previous claim.  The bill would also define VA’s “reasonable effort” to acquire a veteran’s record to no less than two requests and also encourage the veteran to play an active role in providing evidence for her or his claim. 

Lastly, if a veteran’s claim can be adjudicated in the veteran’s favor, without additional evidence, there is no need for VA to attempt to acquire any further evidence.

One of the primary effects of these changes would be a reduction in claim processing time by approximately 40 days.  Often, we have laws on the books that date back many years and do not allow for utilizing all the tools at an agency’s disposal.  It is important that this Committee and the Congress re-visit laws to ensure they still achieve their original intent.  By clarifying several key areas in the law, the Modernizing Notice to Claimants Act reinforces congressional intent and delivers a better service to veterans. 

Another bill I wish to mention in my opening remarks is H.R. 2388, the Access to Timely Information Act, introduced by Chairman Miller. 

The need for this clarifying legislation results from frequent obstruction by VA in providing necessary information to this Committee, and the bill’s objective can be summarized as enabling the legislative branch to better conduct its oversight responsibilities. 

Even in requests for information that do not contain sensitive material, the VA often takes several weeks in providing responses, often demanding that the request be sent in the form of a signed letter. 

The longstanding agreement, that was supposedly based off of VA policy, had been that if a request from the Committee involved personally identifiable information, or PII, then the request would be sent in a signed letter.  However, it has come to light that staff at VA inconsistently applies this policy, and that the policy itself is not even in writing.  After multiple requests over several months for a written policy from VA, nothing has been presented to the Committee, and the end result has been obstructive behavior that hinders this Committee’s efforts to help our veterans. 

This bill clarifies that requests from Committee Members and staff are covered under the pertinent privacy laws with respect to sensitive information. 

This is not rocket science, and I am frustrated and disheartened that we have reached a point where we need this legislation.  As I stated before, this bill will simply help us do our job.  Past efforts at working with VA to establish a consistent policy have met the same type of resistance as the information requests I just discussed, and so we are taking the next step in fixing that problem. 

I appreciate everyone’s attendance at this hearing, and I now yield the Ranking Member for an opening statement.