Mr. Kimo S. Hollingsworth
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, thank you for holding this hearing and providing American Veterans (AMVETS) the opportunity to testify regarding pending claims legislation.
As this Committee is aware, AMVETS hosted the “National Symposium for the Needs of Young Veterans” in Chicago, Illinois last year. More than 500 veterans, active duty and National Guard and reserve personnel, family members, and others who care for veterans examined the growing needs of our returning veterans. Some of the issues relevant to today’s hearing identified at the Symposium include the claims backlog and seamless transition. AMVETS believes these issues are inextricably linked.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) claims backlog is a relatively old issue that is complicated and multi-faceted. Currently, the backlog is way over the 600,000 mark and it continues to grow at a rapid rate. Rather than making headway and overcoming the chronic backlog, VA has lost ground on the problem. By VA’s estimates, over 263,000 Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) veterans will seek VA services; most of them will want to file a claim. Secretary Nicholson has said that reducing the backlog is one of VA’s highest management priorities.
The reasons for the claims backlog are many – veterans repeatedly filing claims, a lack of quality control, misplaced or lost documentation and a lack of staffing. Overall, AMVETS believes that a lack of quality control is central to this issue. VA must establish a long-term strategy focused on attaining quality and not merely achieving quotas in claims processing. Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) can greatly reduce the backlog by hiring more staff, initiating quality training programs, and most importantly, instituting an accountability program.
Equally important, Congress must ensure that VA and the Department of Defense (DOD) are held accountable for ensuring a seamless transition. Congress directed VA and DOD to collaborate on health care issues 25 years ago when it passed Public Law 97-174. Congress should encourage the continued collaboration and sharing of health care issues to include the standardized use of electronic medical records. VA and DOD collaboration in the area of electronic medical records has a direct impact on the VA claims backlog issue.
AMVETS fully understands that the VA and DOD are two distinct and separate health care systems. While there has been progress in the sharing of electronic data between the two agencies, progress is still limited. The technology is clearly available for complete electronic medical records collaboration, and now is the time for this to become a system-wide reality.
Despite years of collaboration on a single separation physical and the development of the Benefits Delivery at Discharge exam (BDD), the Department of Defense (DOD) and VA still conduct separate separation physicals and separate compensation and pension exams. Furthermore, separation physicals are still not mandatory. Congress should require the DOD to conduct mandatory separation physicals and also require DOD to utilize the BDD that was jointly developed and agreed to by both agencies. The effective Benefits Delivery at Discharge joint physical was successfully demonstrated from 1995 through 1998 and still isn’t universally adopted.
In addition, AMVETS would encourage the VA to expand the practice of putting adjudication officers in VA offices aboard active duty military bases. For example, VA has an office aboard Camp Lejeune, NC. The office is staffed with qualified contract medical personnel and full-time VA claims adjudicators. Separating servicemembers are provided compensation exams on base. Many claims are adjudicated and issued a temporary rating decision pending receipt of a DD-214. Once discharged, many new veterans are receiving compensation and disability benefits within 30 days of final release from active duty. Addressing the issue of filing a claim when a servicemember begins the separation process is a crucial first-step and a lasting, long-term solution to reducing the VA claims backlog.
As the number of OEF/OIF veterans continues to grow, so will the number of VA claims. I truly believe that we are now near a “culminating point” that will determine the future of VA claims for generations to come. Claims backlogs have spanned several Administrations and it is clear that the VA is either unwilling or unable to resolve this issue.
While veterans, the VSOs, the VA and the Congress all share responsibility for this debacle, what is very clear is that congressional intervention is now necessary. It is also very clear that the Department of Defense (DOD) has been absent in sharing responsibility for the backlog of VA claims. DOD must be forced to comply with congressional intent with regards to Seamless Transition. If Congress does not intervene, the system will fail.
The VSOs must also ensure that all veterans understand the claims process, the time frames involved, and the evidentiary requirements the veteran must meet. The VA must implement technological changes into the claims process (move from paper filing to electronic filing). VA also needs more, and better trained, claims adjudicators. Finally, VA needs “buy-in” from DOD – veterans are still making hard copies of their medical records and having to hand delivered them to the VA. This is unacceptable!
Regarding the legislation pending before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, AMVETS is supportive of H.R. 1444, legislation to direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make interim benefit payments under certain remanded claims, and H.R. 1490, legislation to provide for a presumption of service-connectedness for certain benefits claims. Both of these bills provide the Secretary of Veterans Affairs with authority to essentially start providing disability and compensation benefits for claims against the government, pending a favorable rating decision.
Provided the department issues reasonable implementation guidance, the bills could assist veterans receive benefits for claims that have a high degree of being awarded. While these legislative proposals may not directly aid in reducing the immediate backlog, the bills serve to provide veterans financial and possibly medical relief while waiting for a determination by the department.
Although AMVETS fully supports the intent of H.R. 67, the Veterans’ Outreach Improvement Act, we are concerned that this legislation is moving VA towards implementing yet another “unfunded mandate” on the department. AMVETS believes that VA has a demonstrated history of effective outreach. This legislation authorizes a total of $75 million over a three-year period, for what appears to serve as a “pass-through” for federal dollars to fund state and veterans county service programs. Overall, outreach activities attempt to provide prevention information, education, counseling, referrals and treatment options to targeted populations rather than wait for an individual to actively seek out services. While AMVETS is sensitive to the plight of veterans and their families and supports the intent of this legislation, we are concerned that it holds the potential to steer critical funding away from health care.
Regarding H.R. 1435, the Claims Backlog Reduction Act, AMVETS would like to share several observations. Provided VA will train and accredit allowing full access to files in the Benefits Delivery Network, this could be a positive step in assisting veterans and VSOs in developing claims. However, generally speaking, State and County Veterans Service Officers are required to accept and submit all claims they receive. AMVETS believes that this obligation to accept any and all claims will actually result in growing the backlog instead of helping.
Moreover, many state and local governments prevent State and County Veteran Service Officers from accepting a power of attorney to act as a custodian on behalf of the state or county. Most are certified or accredited through one of the several Veteran Service Organizations (VSO) and are generally allowed to act as the custodian based on this accreditation. Passing this legislation will ultimately require a State or County Veteran Service Officer the authority to accept a power of attorney with the legal representation/custodian being the state or county.
Lastly, AMVETS believes that a review of claims backlog legislation would be incomplete without a discussion of Congress’ authorization of private attorneys to access VA and charge veterans for representation in veterans’ disability claims. The Veterans Benefits Administration has indicated allowing attorneys to represent veterans will only complicate and lengthen the resolution of veterans’ disability claims. Despite these findings, Congress ignored the recommendation of VA and the VSOs and passed legislation to allow private attorneys to represent veterans during the claim process.
AMVETS has 58 National Service Officers located across the country whose sole job is to aid veterans with their claim. We do provide – free of charge – a more thorough and complete representation for veterans and their families. We do not have any financial interests in a claim, and our National Service Officers know the Veterans Benefits Administration system. Recently, the Board of Veterans Appeals released its Fiscal Year 2006 Report. Out of the major VSOs, AMVETS has the lowest numbers of appeals submitted. Ultimately the report proves that organizations like AMVETS are filing well-developed and meaningful claims. Allowing attorneys to represent veterans will most likely complicate the process by legal maneuvering in lieu of good sound claim development. AMVETS asks that this Committee review its decision, and rescind this law.