Master Sergeant Kurt Priessman, USAF (Ret.)
Honorable Chairmen and Members, I thank you for inviting me to testify before the joint session of the Subcommittees on Disability Assistance & Memorial Affairs and Oversight and Investigations today. I come before this esteemed body as a citizen, as a military retiree and former civil servant, as a disabled Vietnam Veteran and bearer of the Order of the Silver Rose, and as the proud father of an active duty military member. My name is Kurt Priessman, MSgt, USAF (Ret) from Vernon, Texas. I have previously provided testimony to this Subcommittee on the subject of the Backlog and the Claims Processing System.
I thank Mr. Larry Scott of VAWatchdog.org, whose published articles and information provided Veterans with the ability to determine from internal sources that the Veterans Administrations Office of Inspector General found evidence of spoliation and tampering of Veterans claims. Accordingly, when the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Benefits Administration generated FAST Letter 08-41, they admitted that something was seriously amiss with Veterans records and thus with rating decisions at Regional Service Centers across the country.
On behalf of all Veterans, we ask these Committees to comprehend the nature of these events and understand that Veterans are not willing to pass them off to be forgotten. These findings are egregious and are widespread. The following amnesty period, while not well known, definitively showed that these were not misdeeds of a few “bad apples”; they are not symptoms, they are the results of efforts by senior management and supervisors to “meet a quota” set by a very poor work credit system. This system must end immediately.
Veterans wonder why the VAOIG Report was not forthcoming, and now, when finally it is published, will put almost no credence in its findings unless the Report puts the responsibility on what Veterans across the country believe is an extension of the “deny, deny, until they die” mentality of senior Department and Veterans Benefits Administration officials. Their trust, if there was any left, will not be restored by the testimony of these officials before these Subcommittees.
And so it is that Veterans across this nation are asking you, our elected representatives, to do more than ask piercing questions, to do more than accept pre-prepared excuses, to do more than write off the truth as “anecdotal stories”. You must begin to accept that the disability claims system is so severely broken that it must be simplified. Professor Linda Bilmes of the Harvard School of Business and a Presidential Advisor made a brilliant suggestion in previous testimony as did several members of the most recent hearing of the improvement of the Appeals Process. But please know that to do nothing denigrates Veterans and their families, their service to the country, and this esteemed body. I sincerely ask you to consider that what you are experiencing here is an affront by the Department, not only to the Congress, but to all Veterans of the United States of America.
Veterans ask you to consider what has really happened since Chairman Filner’s Roundtable Discussion on Wednesday, November 19, 2008, and Admiral Dunne’s mea culpa.
As an example, this Veteran filed a claim on November 25, 2008, in accordance with the FAST Letter concerning the adjudication of a decision in which “the claim was considered by VA based on an incomplete record because the supporting evidence or information was not added to the record.”
This Veteran received no acknowledgement, there was no indication of a need for a “Report of Contact” (Step1); there were no requests for any documentation (Step 2a), there was no VCAA letter as specified (Step 2b); nor was there anything from the Regional Service Center complying with Step 2c. The Veteran finally received an acknowledgement on February 18, 2009, after asking through the Inquiry Routing Information System (IRIS) on January 27, 2009, again on February 6, 2009, and finally on February 11, 2009.
What begs to be answered is what exactly has been done at Regional Service Centers?
What are Veterans really facing with regards to the implementation of this letter?
Are Veterans really being given the benefit of the doubt concerning lost, shredded, withheld, and spoliated documents or is the Department doing something else?
I personally asked a senior representative of the Disability Compensation and Pension Branch here in Washington if there was forthcoming guidance, and his honest answer was, “I haven’t seen anything on the subject floating around these halls”.
And so I am forced to ask:
Are the Regional Service Centers in receipt of changes in M21-1MR? If so, why are there no published updates available to Veterans, their Advocates, or their Veterans Service Officers?
Are any of these procedures published in the Federal Register? While promised, there are none anyone has seen.
Do Veterans know what they are to do, what they should expect from the VBA and when? It is not at all likely. Or using the phraseology of the VA “It is more likely than not” that the VBA continues its “modus operandi” of keeping the Veteran wondering what, when, and how their claims should be filed and how they will be handled?
In conclusion, I believe this is standard operating procedure by the Department, as is non-compliance with most of its own regulations. I request that the Sub-Committees recommend to the Chairman of the House Veterans Committee and to the full Congress legislation that:
- simplifies the claims process;
- precludes “negotiation” of the findings of a VAOIG Report;
- codifies the FAST letter;
- places spoliation of Veteran documentation as an area of concern, and
- adopts a no tolerance policy and sets forth disciplinary procedures in regulation that requires termination of anyone found responsible for spoliating, shredding, or withholding any claim document without exception.
Thank you all for your patience in this critical matter.