SPEAKERS CONTENTS INSERTS
Page 1 TOP OF DOCOVERSIGHT ON THE VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION
THURSDAY, MARCH 25, 1999
House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Benefits,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The subcommittee met, pursuant to call, at 10 a.m., in room 340, Cannon House Office Building, Washington, DC, Hon. Jack Quinn (chairman of the subcommittee) presiding.
Present: Representatives Quinn, Hayworth, Gibbons, and Filner.
OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN QUINN
Mr. QUINN. Good morning, and thanks for bearing with us. If you ever tell Bob Stump we got started 7 minutes late, I will not have a chairmanship anymore. We will keep it our secret, please.
We have some members with us this morning who have various other schedule commitments. Jim, I know you have to be over on the floor to chair the House, so we appreciate you coming. J.D. is going to be here. And I just saw Mr. Filner outside and he asked us to begin without him. He is on his way in the next couple of minutes.
I want to officially bring the meeting to order and announce that we will be receiving testimony on the challenges facing the Veterans Benefits Administration, VBA, as we begin the 21st century.
The hearing had originally been scheduled for March 10. But due to that Buffalo weather we had that day, about a foot of snow the day before, we decided to postpone the testimony rather than having people risk coming into work in that bad weather. Five inches of snow in Buffalo, of course, is a dusting. Here in the Nation's Capitol it paralyzes us. So we thought it better to postpone, and I appreciate everybody changing their schedules.
Page 2 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC VA's compensation and pension program distributes more than $17 billion annually to veterans and survivors. As a result of the high percentage of claims more than 180 days old, the 42 percent remand rate from the Board of Veterans' Appeals, the exodus of skilled adjudicators to early retirement, a 36 percent error rate on claims decisions, and numerous other factors, the compensation and pension program sometimes appears to be at a crossroads.
We look forward today to hearing from VA's witness, Under Secretary Joe Thompson, not only on his efforts to keep the system afloat and operating, but also his bridge building toward the new century. We also look forward to our continuing dialogue with the Department and the veterans' service organizations as we address the needs of veterans and their families.
Under Secretary Thompson, we all welcome you and applaud you for your leadership and the work that you have done, your candor, your innovation, and unwavering commitment to the veterans we all serve. You wanted the job, and you got the job. And please know that the subcommittee will continue to do all we can to help you do the job, and I think we have a great understanding.
We also had to postpone a meetinga field trip visit that I was going to make over to talk with your staff. We have tried to do that the last couple of years and we just were not able to get that done either.
Finally, I just want to talk about the deadlines set by the subcommittee in preparing for each of our hearings. We will make every effort possible to inform witnesses well in advance of the hearings, providing you with as much time as possible. We ask that all our witnesses try to provide their testimony by the date specified, so that we are able to review that in a timely fashion before we come to committee.
Mr. Filner will have some opening remarks that if he cannot make he will submit for the record, I am sure, but we will give, obviously, him a chance a little bit later on.
Page 3 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC And before we begin, I would like to ask Mr. Hayworth if he has any opening remarks.
[The prepared statement of Chairman Quinn appears on p. 27.]
Mr. HAYWORTH. Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing. And with the sun shining and witnesses ready to go, I look forward to hearing your testimony.
Mr. QUINN. Thanks, J.D.
OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. JIM GIBBONS
Mr. GIBBONS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I appreciate your leadership on this issue. I look forward to the testimony of the witnesses here today. I know the statistics you recited are very important to veterans in the Second Congressional District of Nevada, and I think we are here today to find out what types of accountability and efficiencies we can bring to bear on these statistics that will result in a turnaround of those delays and denials for our veterans' benefits. So I look forward to today's hearing.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you, Mr. Gibbons. I appreciate both of you being here, and your help on the subcommittee behind the scenes. You are both great Members and we appreciate it.
We would like to ask the first panel, then, to come forward. Under Secretary for Benefits, Joe Thompson, is accompanied by Ms. Nora Egan, Mr. Patrick Nappi, and Mr. Bob Epley, and various other helpers who will be with us this morning as they have in the past. You are getting us to the right place, I am sure.
Page 4 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC My notes say, Joe, if it is okay with you, that we hear from the General Accounting Office first. So we are going to ask Cynthia to start this morning, if that is okay with you.
You do not have the microphone at your end of the table, but thanks very much. And welcome.
STATEMENT OF JOSEPH THOMPSON, UNDER SECRETARY FOR BENEFITS, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS; ACCOMPANIED BY PATRICK NAPPI, DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR OPERATIONS, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION; NORA EGAN, DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR MANAGEMENT, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION; ROBERT EPLEY, DIRECTOR OF COMPENSATION AND PENSION SERVICES, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION; AND CYNTHIA A. BASCETTA, ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR, VA & MILITARY HEALTH CARE, GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE
STATEMENT OF CYNTHIA BASCETTA
Ms. BASCETTA. Thank you. Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to discuss the state of VBA today. As you know, the Congress has sponsored three comprehensive studies reflecting its serious concerns about VBA programs, especially the compensation and pension programs.
Today, I would like to highlight our findings about VBA's progress and areas in which more needs to be done, as well as discuss how greater gains in efficiency and effectiveness could lie in solutions beyond current program boundaries.
First, on the positive side, several steps forward in key areas are very encouraging. VBA is measuring decisional accuracy more realistically and strengthening accountability by setting expectations for regional offices to share responsibility for overall network performance.
Page 5 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC They are also developing training strategies for current employees as well as the many new hires who are expected to replace the retiree cohort. And they have worked well with VHA to improve the quality of medical evidence for adjudicating claims. Nevertheless, progress is still lacking in many dimensions.
In our March 1 report on claims processing accuracy, we found that limitations in VBA's ability to pinpoint error-prone cases are likely to perpetuate low accuracy rates. We recommended that VBA collect more specific data to analyze the root causes of errors. For example, VBA needs to understand whether errors are more common for certain types of claims, such as orthopedic or mental impairments.
Without such data, VBA can neither identify why such cases may be more error-prone, nor take corrective action to improve accuracy. Similarly, VBA needs more detailed data on medical evidence deficiencies that are most prevalent in incorrect decisions in order to reduce errors.
We also found that quality reviewers in regional offices do not have sufficient separation of duties or adequate organizational independence to meet government standards for internal controls or program performance audits. These shortcomings call into question the integrity of accuracy data.
VA's inspector general found similar problems with internal control weaknesses that undermined the integrity of timeliness data. And, of course, both timeliness and accuracy data are key to performance measurement under the Results Act.
VBA has a long way to go in speeding up claims processing. Between 1994 and now, processing time has dropped from seven to about 5 months. This is still far from the 2-month goal set as part of business process reengineering. Taking account of NAPA's concerns, VBA is testing some new approaches such as case management of claims, but it is too early to tell whether this will improve timeliness in the face of workload demands.
Page 6 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC And VBA, together with the Congress, also faces difficult decisions in streamlining its infrastructure. For example, both NAPA and the Transition Commission noted that consolidating claims processing at fewer locations could yield greater efficiency and effectiveness.
VBA's own education and insurance programs set precedents for consolidating operations, and VBA itself laid out some of the best reasons for consolidating C&P claims as well, including improving the consistency of decisions for complex cases that require specialized expertise. Even if VBA continues to make good progress, our work and the work of others suggests that diminishing returns may set in quickly under the current program design.
Consider, for example, that more than half of VBA's workload consists of repeat claims, and most of these veterans were rated as 30 percent or less disabled. Notwithstanding the importance of their conditions, lump sum payments for these veterans, especially if they would prefer this option, could improve administrative efficiency beyond what is possible under the current system, as well as free up resources to process claims for more seriously disabled veterans.
This and other options would require legislative support or action. But we believe that the gravity of the situation warrants closer examination of the costs and benefits of selected program changes to achieve the levels of efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness that the veterans and taxpayers deserve.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my remarks, and I would be happy to answer any questions that you or the other subcommittee members may have.
[The prepared statement of Ms. Bascetta appears on p. 36.]
Mr. QUINN. Thanks very much.
I think if it is okay with everybody, Mr. Thompson, we will have you do your presentation first, and then we'll ask questions.
Page 7 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC And let us try to get you a microphone that is working.
STATEMENT OF JOSEPH THOMPSON
Mr. THOMPSON. Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I would like to introduce those accompanying me, if I could. Rick Nappi is on the far right. Rick oversees our field programs. Bob Epley, on my immediate right, is the Director of Compensation and Pension Service. Nora Egan is our Deputy Under Secretary for Management. So between the four of us, hopefully, we can answer every question that comes at us.
With your permission, I would like to enter my written statement into the record and just make a brief opening statement.
Mr. QUINN. Without objection, so ordered.
Mr. THOMPSON. Thank you.
VBA is engaged in a period of great change, a change that we believe is unrivaled since the organizing principles which dictate our current structure were put in place in the 1950s and 1960s.
Every fundamental part of what we do is under changehow we are organized both in headquarters and in the field, how we handle work, how our jobs are structured, how our employees are trained, how technology is used to improve performance, and, finally, how data is used both to measure achievements and to predict future workloads.
Today we have over 80 major initiatives underway. It fills a page, a spreadsheet just listing the titles of these initiatives.
Mr. QUINN. Excuse me, Joe. This will be my time, we will not take it from your time. But when you say 80 initiatives, are you referring to new initiatives? Ongoing? Continuing?
Page 8 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. THOMPSON. They are a blend. They are a blend of new and ongoing.
Mr. QUINN. Do any refer to previous GAO reports that made some suggestions on
Mr. THOMPSON. Yes, absolutely. We refer to GAO, NAPA, the Claims Adjudication Commission, many of the things they have recommended.
Mr. QUINN. Great.
Mr. THOMPSON. In a macro sense, we are moving from an agency, I think, that has been largely internally focused and reactive to events to one that really understands what stakeholders expect from us, particularly veterans and their family members, and is able to deliver itnot only deliver but to anticipate change and build the kind of organization that can adapt when circumstances change.
Now, the backlog of compensation and pension claims remains a problem and a concern for us, as I know it does for this committee, as it does for veterans. However, many of the efforts of recent years to reduce these backlogs and to improve cycle times have, in fact, contributed to a serious deterioration of the quality of the claims decisions being made.
Our focus over the last year has been to improve the quality of the decisionmaking. Many of the efforts in this areamore training, better quality reviews, adding additional reviewers to the claims process, to name just a fewhave themselves contributed to the backlogs because they draw from a limited pool of skilled employees.
Now, I do not say this as a way of excusing what to all of us is an unacceptably long process for giving a veteran a decision on his or her claim. Rather, I just want to be clear that our emphasis has been, and will continue to be, on doing what we consider to be our most important job, which is making the right decision. Cycle times will improve when we stop making the front end mistakes that we are making in the current system.
Page 9 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC But also influencing the cycle times and, in fact, increasing cycle times is our emphasis over the last year on ensuring the highest integrity for our performance data. As mentioned in the GAO testimony, over the last few years, along with the declines in quality have also come declines in the accuracy of the information or performance information that we have been reporting.
The management team here is committed to restoring the integrity of this systemand we have taken a number of steps to do that, including entering into a partnership with our own inspector generaland to make sure that we detect and correct our own worst practices that lead to the bad data coming out of the systems.
Mr. Chairman, this has been an exhilarating experience for all of us, but we believe that patience, focus, and persistence will allow us to achieve our vision. We also believe that working in partnership with the Congress and with veterans' service organizations will ensure our ability to deliver benefits and services to veterans in a way which is not only timely and efficient but which affirms our Nation's commitment to them.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for this opportunity. We look forward to the questions.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Thompson appears on p. 45.]
Mr. QUINN. Thank you, Joe.
Exhilarating experience is polite. (Laughter.)
But accurate, I think. Polite, but accurate.
I know that Mr. Gibbons has to leave to chair the proceedings on the House floor, so I am going to yield and offer him the first chance for questions of our panel.
Mr. GIBBONS. Mr. Chairman, I appreciate that greatly, and the indulgence of the other members for having to leave on this important occasion.
Page 10 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC But, Mr. Thompson, can you briefly describeI know the GAO report has stated that time between a benefit claims application and decisionmaking has been about 7 months. Well, you have taken some steps to get it down now to somewhere between 5 to 6, maybe 5 1/2 months on average. What steps are you now taking to get it down to the recommended 60-day timeline? And what is your expected time for reaching that goal?
Mr. THOMPSON. We have taken a number of steps in terms of evaluating what we do. But if I could say one thing. In the past, almost our entire focus has been on reducing that cycle time. And as I mention in my testimony, that has actually hurt the quality of the decisions we made.
Our error rate when we began our new review was 36 percent, and we have, in fact, focused most of our efforts to saying, ''This is the most important thing we do. We have to make the right call.'' And making the right call will lead us to doing less rework and fewer disputed claims from veterans.
We have focused our efforts first on trying to create a system of measures that makes us consider not just how fast we are doing it but with the degree of accuracy that we need, what veterans think of the process, and how much it costs us and how our own employees are doing in that. We call that a balanced scorecard.
We have also begun to fundamentally restructure the way we handle claims in regional offices. Typically, that is an assembly line process. We are forming teams of employees who have much broader responsibilities and have direct contact with the veteran and have the responsibility for keeping veterans apprised of what is going on with their claims.
In the 1970s we were one of the leaders in the government in technology and use of technology. Today we are the guy that cannot shoot straight, and we have to reverse that. We have spent an enormous amount of money, and, frankly, not gotten the results. But we think we have a number of technological innovations that are going to have a significant impact.
Page 11 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC And one other piece that was mentioned in the testimony by GAOthe actual laws and regulations that we use are enormously confusing and very difficult to use in a practical sense in a regional office.
Our procedural instructions may require a claims examiner, for example, to look at three, four, or five different sites to make a decision on one piece of information. So we have a project underway to rewrite our own regulations to make them smoother and easier to use.
The timeframe is somewhere beyond 2002, 2003. I do not know that we will ever get to 60 days. I am not sure whether that is a goal that is important to veterans. When we poll them, they tell us closer to 3 months is an acceptable range.
If we keep them apprised of what is going on, if we make a good decision, they are pretty comfortable with something closer to 3 months. And I believe as we go through the process of reevaluating our measures we are going to end up with that number.
Mr. GIBBONS. Mr. Thompson, just one final question, if I may. You alluded to it a little bit. Your claims there percentage todaywhat is the percentage of error now between the decisionfinal decision and the returns or the overturns by the Court of Veterans Appeals?
Mr. THOMPSON. Well, we have two key measures. One, we look at our own process and decide we made a mistake, whether the veteran said anything about it or not. Now, when we started this in November 1997, that was about 36 percent.
Mr. GIBBONS. The error rate.
Mr. THOMPSON. The error rate in ratings. Today, that is 29 percent.
Mr. EPLEY. Actually, our accuracy rate is 73 percent, so it is 27 percent.
Mr. THOMPSON. 27 percent. We are making some gains which is what we hope to do. So we are very pleased with that.
Page 12 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC The other part is the remand rate. When the Board of Veterans' Appeals looks at the case and returns it to the regional office, that rate had been at a high of 52 percent at one point. And I believe it was in the mid forties last year.
Mr. EPLEY. Yes. Last year, 41 percent for the year. We are now down to 39 percent and moving in the right direction anyway.
Mr. THOMPSON. They are both tracking in the right direction, so we are pleased with that because we think that the essence of what we need to do is to make sure we are making the right decision.
Mr. GIBBONS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you, Mr. Gibbons.
Mr. HAYWORTH. Mr. Chairman, I thank you.
And, Mr. Under Secretary, thank you for being here today. The Chairman made mention of your interesting terminology of exhilarating. Perhaps I might use ambitious. And I noted with interest your response to my friend from Nevada's first query.
When you talked about an emphasis on teams and technology, might I suggest, as we have examined your testimony, there is a third T that could probably use more elaboration. And that is trainingemployee traininggiven the fact that different people come into different jobs, there is a change in culture and a way of getting things done.
Could you detail for our subcommittee what efforts are being made in terms of training your employees for these changes?
Mr. THOMPSON. Absolutely. Thank you. We traditionally have trained on an ad hoc basis in VBA. Wherever you went to work and when you showed up there, it largely determined the training you received. It was a highly decentralized system. It led to widespread variances not only in the training but in the decisions. You could go to different regional offices and have them make different decisions on the same evidence.
Page 13 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC We have begun over the last year to put in a highly focused and highly centralized process for training our regional office staffs. It combines several levels of training. We have a computer-based instructional system that we are putting in place right now. We have rolled the first four modules out into regional offices. They are being used today.
We have a satellite network, which allows us to take the program subject experts and allow them to share their experiences with every regional office. We use internet-based training, which has been developed over the last year.
What am I missing, Bob?
Mr. EPLEY. We are using the Academy.
Mr. THOMPSON. We have a training academy in Baltimore, which, travel expenses allowing, we can bring people in there to train.
This has been one of our major points of interest or initiatives. Our intention over the next several years, if things go right, is to spend $31 million on training. And our goal by the year 2002, is that every decisionmaker in VA will have, on the day they begin working for us, a structured training program that not only teaches them what they need to know, but will also tell them when they are missing something or have gaps in any areas.
Mr. GIBBONS. Mr. Secretary, I appreciate that brief outline. If you could provide the committee in writing a more detailed plan for this training, because I think you have touched on something in your answer. While we certainly understand there are different conditions in different parts of the country, to have decisions made at variance depending on geographic location, obviously points out the difficulty in standardization of taking care of these claims.
So if you could detail that, have your staff detail that to us in writing, I would appreciate it.
Mr. THOMPSON. We would be delighted to.
Page 14 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC
[The information follows:]
Strip offset folios 01 to 02 here
Mr. HAYWORTH. I thank you, sir. Mr. Secretary, we have the testimony, of course, of the General Accounting Office. The GAO recommends that you examine consolidating more adjudicative functions, but the DAV and others apparently have strongly opposed this recommendation.
So my question to you, in closing, is what course do you plan to steer between the opposing views that seem to be presented here?
Mr. THOMPSON. We are going to steer very carefully through this. (Laughter.)
Actually, what we are doing withtechnology, I think, will moot the point of where you are located in order to do the job. One of the pieces of technology we are looking at is imaging.
Now, today, not only are we structured in a way that forces us to be in certain locations, because you physically have to have your hands on the paper, on the veterans' claims folder, but all of our partners in the service organizations who want to represent veterans also need to be in that same location and have their hands on that folder.
As we move to imaging, and as material and information and data becomes available, if you have a phone jack and a modem available, then the location of where you do work is less and less important. Our emphasis has been to build flexibility into the system because, I will say frankly, what we should look like in 4 or 5 years I do not know. I really do not know how we should be structured.
Page 15 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC But I will say that if we build the proper technology and a proper base, if we, as we plan to do, put decisionmakers at every major discharge center in the United States to work with service members before they are out of service, and we decide we want to hit all of the population centers in the United States, we may actually move in the opposite direction of, instead of consolidation, further decentralization but still have the central control over what we are doing.
So I believe that we want to build flexibility in the system and make the decision as the technology becomes available.
Mr. HAYWORTH. Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I see the red light is on. I think it is a worthy goal, whether from the snows of Buffalo to the sun and sand of the desert floor in Arizona. We are very happy to see this type of attempted standardization.
And, again, I thank the chair.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you, J.D., and thanks for your question.
I want to follow up, though, on Mr. Hayworth's question. George Basher is the New York State Commissioner of Veterans' Affairs. He happens to be out of Buffalo and his office is near mine back home, my district office. So we have a chance to chat a lot.
He has been talking to me about the possibility of having vets file their claims electronically. And imaging, as you pointed out to J.D.'s question, is the thing of the future. In your testimony you mentioned technology. GAO mentions technology.
And then you say that, you know, sometimes after we review the claim and we get it back to the regional office, and you need to have your hands on it, and everything else to that effect. If we can get to that pointlet me phrase it in a question.
What are we doing to help you get to that technology? Now, we have talked about the budget a little bit and where it is going to be plussed up a little bit in the right spots for people to help do this. But if we were able to take advantage of this electronic age, not only would it speed things up but it may also reduce some of the human error that takes place when you just have so many people's hands on the same report. I mean, that is just going to happen. No matter what we think or what we try to do, it is justthe training we give to peoplewhen you have got that many people involved, the numbers are stacked against you.
Page 16 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC So the question I guess, Joe, is, what are we doing? What could we do better in terms of, is it adequate enough to get you to a point where we could move. It does not matter to me today whether it is central or decentral. But, I mean, to get you to a place where you can do that better.
Mr. THOMPSON. Well, actually, we have a proposal in the budget this year, $10 million, to look at imaging for compensation and pension.
Mr. QUINN. Is it funded?
Mr. THOMPSON. It is in the President's budget.
Mr. QUINN. It is.
Mr. THOMPSON. Yes, it is.
Mr. QUINN. And when you say ''to look at imaging''
Mr. THOMPSON. Well
Mr. QUINN (continuing). Pilot program?
Mr. THOMPSON. Well, if I could back up just a moment.
Mr. QUINN. Sure, I am sorry.
Mr. THOMPSON. About a year ago we entered into a unique partnership with a commercial nonprofit organization in Washington called Highway One.
Mr. QUINN. That is brave of you to say with GAO sitting next to you, too, Joe. (Laughter.)
Mr. THOMPSON. This is a consortium of high tech companies, and we went to them and asked them as a public service if they would help us develop some technology in VBA. We did not have any money to pay for it. And luckily for us, they did volunteer.
And yet IBM, Microsoft, Sysco Systems, Eastman Kodak, Radian, and Computer Sciences Corporation worked together, and went in our local regional office, the Washington regional office on Vermont Avenue up from our headquarters, and they took a unit there and in about 5 months put them in an imaged environment. And they are on that today now.
Page 17 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC That is our prototype, and it has proven to us that we know enough to realize that this has enormous potential.
Mr. QUINN. So it has been positive?
Mr. THOMPSON. It has been absolutely positive. It really fundamentally changes all of the ground rules because we are literally tethered to the paper today. So much of what we do has to do with the fact that you have got to have your hands on the paper. That has shown us that not only is this technology available, but it can work in our compensation and pension business.
So with that, we got the $10 million into the budget this year to begin to export it. Right now, we are at the point of trying to define what our requirements are to go beyond this small prototype-type operation. We maywe probably will take some significant deviations from what was put in place in the regional office, but we were enormously encouraged by what is there.
We think with a little bit of effort on our part, and a little bit of budget support, we will be able to make this happen.
Mr. QUINN. So, then, what does $10 million get youget us?
Mr. THOMPSON. Well, right now
Mr. QUINN. By our shoestrings volunteering last year to this year. We are moving in the right direction with the $10 million. It is funded. How far along do we go?
Mr. THOMPSON. It will allow us to export it. We are not sure to what degree. We are probably going to try to do it in one of our service delivery networks and say that we will try to image this entire network. We have nine networks. So this will tell us, ''This is what the future can look like,'' and we will work out some of the kinks.
Now, there will be more costs for the first one than there will be for any of the subsequent ones
Page 18 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. QUINN. Well, and I am not trying to
Mr. THOMPSON (continuing). Because of development issues.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you. I am not trying to put you on the spot with the $10 million. I know it will be spent wisely. As early as you can in the process, then, could you get information to us on what amount you might need next year?
Mr. THOMPSON. Okay.
Mr. QUINN. I mean, this is a walk before you run process, as I understand it.
Mr. THOMPSON. Exactly.
Mr. QUINN. So we are up nowso for our benefit, to help you as best we can, try to let us know what you are looking at. Is it going to be, you know, $20 million, or, you know, 100? I do not know what those number
Mr. THOMPSON. I like that last number.
Mr. QUINN. Yes, I know you do. (Laughter.)
Not everybody does.
But let me ask GAO ifduring this discussion here, we do not want to ignore you. Is there anything you want to add in your report that you have seen either withfrom Joe's answers or some of the questions that the Members have asked this morning that could be helpful to us? Cindy?
Ms. BASCETTA. Well, on the last issue with regard to a paperless process, while I certainly agree that that is a terrific organizing tool and ought to speed things up, I would just like to caution people to remember that the decisions are only as good as the substance behind them, whether they are on paper or whether they are computerized.
And we would like to make sure that these tools are clearly supported, but that they are not thought of as a panacea that can achieve results instead of some of the data driven analysis that needs to be done to find out how to make these decisions more accurately.
Page 19 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. QUINN. Very good point. Thank you.
And let meI will also add that, you know, along withand I am not computer literate like my kids are and my staff, of course, but if the computer goes down then we have got a whole lot of veterans really mad at you, Joe. I mean, we are
We say it joking around, but as soon as we go to that system, almost along the same lines herethat sometimes cannot replace decisions that need to be made and back up and all the rest of this.
Mr. THOMPSON. We are, in fact, at that point today.
Mr. QUINN. Okay.
Mr. THOMPSON. I mean, if our computer system goes down, we are, in essenceeven the one we have in placewe are out of business.
Mr. QUINN. Mr. Filner, any questions?
We are going to askthank you all. I appreciate your testimony again today and your answers to our questions.
Mr. QUINN. We divided our next witnesses into two panels because we are not in the large room today. So we ask the second panel to come forward, please. Thank you.
Mr. Thompson, just as we are finishing up here, I am reminded that Mr. Filner does have a couple of questions, and in his absence he will submit them to me. Could you write us back, please? Thank you.
And the same thing with GAO, in case we have some questions for them. Thank you.
Okay. Our second panelwe have representatives from the DAV, AMVETS, and The American Legion, and I would like to thank you all for being here this morning. If it is okay with all of you, Mr. Wilkerson, I will start at your end, and remind everyone that, of course, we have your full testimonythe committee hasand your summary of about 5 minutes or so would be greatly appreciated.
Page 20 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOCSTATEMENTS OF PHILIP R. WILKERSON, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL VETERANS AFFAIRS AND REHABILITATION COMMISSION, THE AMERICAN LEGION; VERONICA A'ZERA, LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, AMVETS; AND RICK SURRATT, DEPUTY NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS
STATEMENT OF PHILIP WILKERSON
Mr. WILKERSON. Good morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee. The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to share its views with you concerning the current operations of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Each year, VBA pays billions in statutory benefits. If the programs of benefits and services are to achieve the purposes that Congress intended, they must be managed in an efficient, cost-effective manner, and claims adjudicated correctly and in a timely manner.
VBA is certainly undergoing a period of major transition, and it is important that the veterans' affairs committees and other stakeholders closely monitor their plans and progress. We, therefore, wish to commend you, Mr. Chairman, for scheduling this very timely hearing.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a steady increase in VBA's overall workload due to new statutory entitlements and benefit enhancements. Equally significant has been the fact that judicial review standards have made the claims adjudication process much more complex and time-consuming.
However, the training for adjudication personnel has not kept pace with the changing legal environment. In addition, long-promised processing efficiencies have never been able to make up for the repeated cutbacks in staffing. As cases continue to churn through the system for months and sometimes years, it is little wonder that VBA's own surveys have shown strong customer dissatisfaction with a lack of timely, quality service.
Page 21 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC In response to consistent criticism from veterans, the VSOs, Congress, and others, VBA has focused most of its efforts on trying to improve the physical processes by which claims are adjudicated. Speed and production are the main priorities.
Less attention is being given to identifying and correcting the core problems of poor quality decisionmaking, despite the sustained high rates of appeals and remands.
Mr. Chairman, however, within the last 4 years VA officials have become increasingly open and frank about the seriousness of VBA's problems and their commitment to improving the quality and timeliness of service to veterans. Internal as well as external factors have contributed to the evolution of VBA's current strategic and business plans.
The challenge is now to go from what has traditionally been a process-oriented system to one which is results-oriented, where quality service is the guiding principle.
What is important, from our perspective, is that things have begun to move in the right direction. VBA has invested a lot of time and effort in developing its strategic plans and objectives, the mechanisms to measure progress and report on outcomes, such as the balanced score card initiative.
There are now rising expectations that service will soon begin to improve, and VBA must now begin to deliver on its promises. During this difficult period of transition, we believe strong oversight, as well as budgetary support, over the next several years will be critical to the ultimate success or failure of VBA's plans.
Underlying the key themes of improved customer service and quality decisionmaking is the need to make workers and managers accountable for the quality of work performed. Toward this end, the statistical technical accuracy review program, STAR, is aimed at improving VBA's quality assurance.
Current reported error rates are at unacceptable levels. This has been confirmed by The American Legion's own field visit to a number of regional offices. And I have included some information in our formal testimony.
Page 22 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC For reasons which are still not clear, VBA continues to rely on a work measurement system which does not and which cannot provide accurate, reliable data on how long it takes to process a claim correctly, nor what resources are actually needed for this task. The current system is prone to abuse and mismanagement and must be replaced at the soonest possible date.
We have included in our testimony some of the more disturbing findings from the 1997 survey of VBA employees, which shows a serious disconnect between what is VBA's stated policy and what is happening at the regional office level. We believe VBA should update this survey in the very near future to assess how much or how little the employees' perception and attitudes have changed since then. This type of information will be important to future changes.
Mr. Chairman, The American Legion is supportive of the concept of enhanced training for veterans service officers as part of VBA's training, responsibility, involvement, and preparation of claims initiative, called TRIP. We are hopeful it will evolve into a program which meets the needs of both VBA and veterans service officers.
We are also very supportive of the VA/DOD pre-discharge physical exam program, which is already providing improved access and direct service to thousands of veterans. As it expands in the future, we believe this will have a definite and favorable impact on VBA's workload.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes our testimony.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Wilkerson appears on p. 52.]
Mr. QUINN. Thank you, Phil. Thanks very much.
I think we will hear from all of the panel, and then do our questions at one time.
Page 23 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOCSTATEMENT OF VERONICA A'ZERA
Ms. A'ZERA. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. We appreciate the opportunity to provide testimony to you today on VBA. In essence, Mr. Chairman, the VBA is currently an organization in transition, and I wonder how many times you are going to hear that today.
We believe that the initiatives that are implementing, if funded appropriately, will restore the effectiveness of, and the confidence in, VBA. Congress, and, more importantly, America's veterans, expect and deserve no less.
The leadership, managerial expertise, and commitment Under Secretary Joseph Thompson and his principal staff members are providing is essential to the agency's long-term success. We continue to support his efforts.
Current trends, however, are troubling. And one trend that was echoed today by GAO's reportVBA's inability to process veterans' claims in both a timely and accurate manner. Poor quality leads to a repetitious work cycle in which claims returned as a result of errors and/or insufficient information have to be reprocessed prior to a final determination. It has become a downward spiral.
To avoid insurmountable backlogs, VBA staff has been forced to emphasize speed and quantity in claims processing instead of quality.
At a time when reductions have occurred within the military, creating an expanded demand for VA services, and the addition of programs such as compensation for Persian Gulf veterans suffering from undiagnosed illnesses, the challenges confronting VBA have become almost insurmountable.
Add to these challenges the fact that during the last 6 years the VBA workforce has diminished by 19 percent and you define a system destined to fail. Today, VBA's workload has increased by 21 percent. We are unrealistically expecting fewer professional staff to do more.
Page 24 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Adequate funding is the key to correcting these problems. Not only must we increase VBA staff levels; we need to invest in training and improve information technology to improve veteran access.
We, therefore, recommend increase FTE and C&P by 400, include $5 million in the GOE appropriation for development of programs to train C&MP personnel and redesignate their work functions and responsibilities, appropriate $14 million to cover the cost of establishing VA pre-discharge claims processing services at military separation sites.
And I can tell you that I have personally visited the site at Great Lakes in Chicago, where this is currently being done, and it is a wonderful plan. The only thing that I would add to that is that we do not want to forget about the veterans who have been waiting for years. It is wonderful that we are helping them as they getting out, but I do not want to forget about the ones who have been waiting.
As you know, AMVETS has partnered, once again, with the Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars to produce the independent budget. In an effort to save time, I am not going to mention all of the recommendations out of the independent budget, but I do want to mention one in particular which is the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which I know there are a lot of bills right now that would improve that.
AMVETS has a resolution calling for the elimination of the $1,200 contribution requirement by service men and women and authorizing the universal transfer of unused benefits to the spouse and/or dependent child/children of the veteran, with the transferability at the sole discretion of the veteran beneficiary.
We recognize there are many improvements that need to be made the current G.I. Bill, and we look forward to working with this committee on this issue. We are also a part of a task force formed by several veterans' service organizations to examine the changes which need to be made.
Page 25 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC In conclusion, VBA is definitely facing some majorand I will use Secretary Thompson's termexhilarating challenges, but they are not insurmountable. With sufficient funding, it is AMVETS' opinion that an increase in FTE, some legislative initiatives, and the continued solid leadership of Under Secretary Thompson and his deputies, these problems will be successfully addressed.
We appreciate all of the efforts of this committee that has been made in the past, and we look forward to working with you in the future. Thank you.
[The prepared statement of Ms. A'zera appears on p. 59.]
Mr. QUINN. Thank you. We appreciate your input to help us make some decisions.
STATEMENT OF RICK SURRATT
Mr. SURRATT. Good morning, Mr. Chairman. I am Rick Surratt with the Disabled American Veterans. The Veterans Benefits Administration is a large geographically dispersed organization with responsibility for delivering diverse benefits and services, such as compensation, pensions, vocational rehabilitation, educational assistance, home loans, and life insurance.
An effective delivery system is essential if these programs are to fulfill their intended purposes. Erroneous eligibility decisions and undue delay in benefit awards defeat the beneficial purposes of any assistance program. VBA does a good job, generally. But one of the notable exceptions is in the processing of compensation and pension claims.
Unfortunately, that is where veterans' needs are most urgent and immediate, but where mistakes are common and delay is the rule. VBA recognizes and admits the many serious problems and has a comprehensive plan to correct them. Instead of reporting an error rate of three percent or lower, as it did for years, VA is now reporting error rates of up to 36 percent. But as startling as that is, it is a positive sign because it exposes the major problem and demonstrates more accurate measurement and more honest reporting.
Page 26 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Because the underlying problems are not susceptible to a quick fix, VA's plan phases in reforms to address the deficiencies. All elements of the business process reengineering plan are geared toward prompt, accurate, courteous, and efficient delivery of benefits. Better trained, more highly skilled teams, will work directly with claimants and be accountable for the quality of the total product from initiation of the claim to its disposition.
The plan's goals will not be realized in the near term because of the necessity to train new decisionmakers, test and certify the proficiency of existing decisionmakers, and incrementally implement the new methods. In fact, we are now seeing some increase in case backlogs and deterioration in claims processing timeliness.
Better quality measures have already been developed, but a substantial improvement in quality may only come with full implementation of new training and accountability mechanisms.
We believe, however, that VBA could do more to improve quality now and ensure attainment of future goals by acting to change the culture of indifference and arbitrariness that is partly responsible for claims decisions that do not conform to the law.
Despite the new philosophy of VA leadership, the VA's decisionmakers show little sign of changing from the old ways. We do not believe VA has adequately communicated to the decisionmakers the urgency of the situation and the absolute necessity to change. They seem oblivious to VBA's new vision and the necessity to strive for technical accuracy. The same attitudes and arbitrariness that were characteristic of the old VA remain today.
We believe VA would be better equipped to deal with this recalcitrance if C&P service had line authority over field adjudicators. Program management and control would be more direct and allow easier enforcement of accountability. Enactment of Congressman Evans' bill, H.R. 1214, would also add an important quality assurance function.
Congress can help VA overcome its serious deficiencies by ensuring that VBA has the resources to implement necessary reforms.
Page 27 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Finally, we note that VA's task has been made much more difficult by a line of court rulings that complicate the decisional process. In addition to being counterproductive for VA, and unfair to claimants, we believe this line of court decisions is clearly based on an incorrect interpretation of law.
Throughout VA's history, it has had the duty to assist veterans in meeting their burden of proof, which is well-grounded claim. The Court of Veterans Appeals turned this principle upside down, however. The court held that a veteran must prove that the claim is well-grounded before VA has any duty to assist.
That not only defeats the purpose of the duty to assist; it adds confusion because it is difficult for VA and veterans to understand what the veteran must prove without assistance as opposed to what the veteran is entitled to assistance in proving. In any event, the court's decisions are contrary to the way these provisions applied in VA practice since the 1920s, and contrary to congressional intent that they continue to apply that same way.
Because the case against the court's interpretation of the law is so compelling, we believe we have a duty to appeal all of VA's decisions that apply it, and we recently instructed our field offices across the country to do just that. Unfortunately, that will probably add to VA's already heavy workload.
Congress could remedy this situation by promptly enacting legislation to override the court's interpretation and restore the long-standing meaning of these provisions. The DAV urges you to do so.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my statement. I will be happy to answer any questions.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Surratt appears on p. 62.]
Mr. QUINN. Thank you all very much.
Page 28 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC And now that all three of you have completed testimony, Bob and I both have a couple of questions, I am sure, before the next panel comes up.
All of you say things, and you are right about transition. Everybody is saying the same thing. A few of us headed in the right direction, beginning to turn the corner a little bit, but some of the time delays are still not acceptable.
Let me start with the DAV from this end, Rick, because you just finished up. If you couldif we could say one single thing that VBA could do and get it done that would help the most
Mr. SURRATT. Would help the most?
Mr. QUINN. Yes. And I do not want to put you on the spot here, but imagine we could do that and it did not have to do necessarily with extra FTEs or the technology we talked about with Joe Thompson before he left, and it is mentioned in all of your testimony here today. If we could get one thing done this year as we are building year to year to improve on this problem, in your opinionor a couple of thingswhat would they be?
Mr. SURRATT. Well, obviously, everyone recognizes that quality is a problem, but quality does require a lot of other things. The one thing VA could do with the resources it has is what I mentioned in my statement. I think that VA could send a much clearer message to its decisionmakers, could have an attitude adjustment, if you will, and do some things to create some awareness in the front-line adjudicator that they have to change the old ways. I, frankly, do not think they have done that.
Mr. QUINN. And might I add to your statement that that does not cost anything, does it?
Mr. SURRATT. Well, it probablynot anything additional.
Mr. QUINN. Right.
Mr. SURRATT. I would not see any additional cost.
Page 29 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. QUINN. Thank you.
I am going to ask the same question of all three of you. I guess that sort of boils down your testimony, but I am trying to get a sense here to match up your testimony with Mr. Thompson and GAO.
Ms. A'ZERA. Okay. Are we
Mr. QUINN. Would you care to add to that?
Ms. A'ZERA. Are we assuming two things, then, that they get their FTE
Mr. QUINN. Yes.
Ms. A'ZERA (continuing). And adequate funding?
Mr. QUINN. Yes.
Ms. A'ZERA. Okay. In that case, then, I would agree with the training aspect of it.
Mr. QUINN. Okay.
Ms. A'ZERA. The one thing that I have been gettingI am also on the Women Veterans Advisory Committee for the VA, and the one thing that I get questioned about all the time is we get complaints back when the decisions come back. For example, we had a sexual trauma case, and she put in for a PTSD compensation.
And it came back that shealthough they agree that shethey had all of the documents saying that she had been raped in the military, and all of this other stuff had happened, they said she could not get PTSD because she was notshe did not serve in Vietnam in the combat arena. That should not happen, and that just recently happened, and I have turned it in to VA. When we get those things, we turn them into them and let them know.
But I think that, you know, that shows what we have been saying, that it is great that they have the new employees coming in and everything else, or the transitioning ones, but we have got to train them and get them out of that old mind set.
Page 30 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. QUINN. Sure. And Mr. Thompson was asked that question about training earlier this morning
Ms. A'ZERA. Right.
Mr. QUINN (continuing). And you heard his response. I am sure you were in the room.
Mr. WILKERSON. Well, we would certainly agree with the comments that have been made as to the absolute necessity for continued and improved training of current staff as well as new hires. Certainly, they will be having an influx of new individuals as well as a loss of experienced people.
Mr. QUINN. Right.
Mr. WILKERSON. Going along with the idea of training is the necessity is quality assurance. You must have some way to measure and gauge the effectiveness of your training program on the quality of the work that is actually being produced. Otherwise, I think you will have wasted everybody's time and a lot of resources that we cannot afford these days.
While there are a number of initiatives that are focused in on ensuring accountability of individuals as well as managers for the work, these have to be coupled with some sort of incentives, if you will, for better quality work, as well as disincentives for poor quality work.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you. Thanks very much. Mr. Filner.
OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. BOB FILNER
Mr. FILNER. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I apologize to the panel and to the Chair for being late this morning. I was involved in the House debate on the budget resolution, which you all have an intense interest in, I know, and the rule for that resolution.
Page 31 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC I will read your testimony, but it strikes meand I know you all understand thisthat the kind of changes that you want to see, the kind of efficiencies, the kind of concern and care in it comes back to resources. As you pointed out, the assumption is that you are going to be fully funded. And if you do not have the resources, if you do not have the positions, if you do not have the training, no matter what we say here, it is not going to happen.
Theoretically, by the rules of the House, if some of the legislation that you mentioned was not in our submission to the Budget Committee, which it was not, we cannot do it this year. As you know, the House rules can be bent and things can happen regardless of that rule. But as we have been progressing this year, it is a moot point to discuss all of these proposals, because the budget is not adequate to deal with them. You all know that.
The resolution that is in the House, that will be voted on at the end of the day, actually reduces the VA budget over the next 5 years and 10 years. It does not slow the rate of growth. It does not give less of an increase. It reduces by absolute dollars the amount of money for veterans over the next decade by $3 billion.
The first year it increases the budget by $900 million, and then every year after, it is on a downward swing. And there is an inadequate base to start with.
So I must say, Mr. Chairman, anybody who votes for the ruleand most of the veterans' organizations have recommended a vote against itare voting for a resolution that puts the veterans' budget on a downward path. I think that is disgraceful. I think it is unconscionable. As you know, you all participated, at least two-thirds of you, in the Independent Budget, which was a great effort.
I think it was an incredibly good job, and virtually every organization in America that speaks for veterans endorsed it. And they asked for a $3.2 billion increase over what the President asked for and over the baseline.
As you know those of us who favored that Independent Budget were not even allowed to bring it up at the Veterans' Committee. The full Veterans' Committee did increase the budget by $1.9 billion, to its credit. But then the Budget Committee lowered that to $.9 billion the first year, and then the decreases I have mentioned
Page 32 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. QUINN. Excuse me, Bob. Would the gentleman yield?
Mr. FILNER. Sure.
Mr. QUINN. You, of course, can point this out to me anytime. Do you have any questions for the panel?
Mr. FILNER. I just want to finishlet me finish, if I might, because their testimony is affected by what is going on.
The President's budget was terrible, but what is in the House is worse. You all have to get at the grass roots because those votes can be changed. The battle is never over at any one time. The budget resolution is just the first stage in an ongoing situation.
So your folks have got to get to work with us because this is unconscionable. When the bodies are allowed to votethe Senate had a vote yesterday on a $2 billion increase990 yesterday in the Senatewe will win.
That is why they do not want us to have a vote on this; they know we will win. They know you will win. They know our veterans win, so they are trying to prevent a vote. I think it is terrible. I think you all have to make some noise about that wherever you can.
Whatever we talk about, whatever programs you are asking for, whatever positions you want, are not going to happen with this budget. I just do not see it. Do you agree with that or not? I would like to hear your response. It is pretty pessimistic, but it can be changed. If the Senate voted one thing, and we vote another, there is a conference on that. So it may go up a little bit.
Ms. A'zera, do you want to say anything?
Mr. SURRATT. I wish you guys would start giving us enough money. It makes us all very contentious when we do not
Mr. FILNER. I am sorry?
Mr. SURRATT. I said I wish the Congress would start giving us enough money because it makes us all very contentious when we do not get enough. But we hope the members on both sides will be with us in the future if we have towe will probably, as we have in the last, have to fight next year's budget battle all anew, and it will probably be just as intense as this year's or even more so. But we appreciate everything you can do for us this year, of course.
Page 33 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Ms. A'ZERA. I would just like to say I understand what you are saying about the grass-roots effort. And as you know, this is our spring NEC this week, and so we do have our members traveling around and visiting. I have spent the last couple of days traveling around and talking and explaining our position with the IB, and, you know, where we think the money should go and why.
So we are working on the grass roots and we will continue to do that.
Mr. WILKERSON. I would just like to thank you, Mr. Filner, for your remarks in support of the real need for Congress to recognize their obligation and responsibility to veterans. However, politics frequently gets in the way, and we will certainly do all that we can to communicate those concerns to our membership and ensure that they contact their congressional delegation, so that this does not happen and we can work towards an adequate funding level for veterans.
Mr. FILNER. It is sad that the partisanship seems to overwhelm because it hurts veterans. If we could be bipartisan in support of our veterans, so much the better. And I certainly want to work toward that. But if the reality is that you cannot even get a vote on your motions, you have got to point that out.
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you very much. We appreciate your time this morning, not only your testimony but your answers.
I would ask the third panel to come forward, please, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Gentlemen, welcome. Appreciate you being with us this morning, and I appreciate your patience as we began here today.
Mr. Bradshaw, if it is okay with you, we will start from your end of the table and work our way across. We have received your testimony, obviously. We ask that your summary be limited to about 5 minutes or so, and then we will wait until everybody has finished their presentation, and then if Bob and I have some questions, we will get to you then. Okay?
Page 34 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOCSTATEMENTS OF HARLEY THOMAS, ASSOCIATE LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, PARALYZED VETERANS OF AMERICA; BILL RUSSO, DIRECTOR, VETERANS BENEFITS PROGRAMS, VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA; AND WILLIAM L. BRADSHAW, DEPUTY DIRECTOR, NATIONAL VETERANS SERVICE, VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS
STATEMENT Of WILLIAM BRADSHAW
Mr. BRADSHAW. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. The VFW believes that the most critical problem with the Veterans Benefits Administration today is the lack of people.
Last June 10th, in testimony before this same committee, we took the opportunity to describe three very important initiatives within the VBA that we felt, if successful, would make a tremendous impact toward resolving the current decisionmaking quality and timeliness problems in the adjudication and rating of veterans' claims.
These three are the post-decision review process, particularly the decision review officerswe call the DROthe pre-discharge claims development, examinations and rating program, and the out-basing of adjudication and rating personnel in about 60 percent of the VA medical centers.
In our written testimony today we articulate in greater detail the critical importance of these programs. This is not just our opinion. For instance, the decision review officer is really the response to the suggestions made by the Veterans Claims Adjudication Commission in their 1997 report to expand the widely successful hearing loss program.
Further, our VFW Department of Service has 12 DRO test sites. Locations have universally praised the program as a means to expeditiously resolve contested claims, thereby drastically reducing the amount of appeals on VA rating decisions while providing better decisions.
Page 35 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC These three programs are in jeopardy because of one reason: the VBA just does not have enough people to ensure at least a reasonable chance of success of these initiatives. The 36 percent error rate identified earlier in the January 1998 systematic technical accuracy review, the STAR report, just alone supports this supposition of ours. Simply stated, the VBA does not have enough people to do the job anymore.
We were very encouraged with our stated intentions last June, Mr. Chairman, to increase the VBA's FTE by 175. Regrettably, the Congress eventually went along with the administration's recommendation for a further overall 125 FTE reduction in VBA from the 1998 level as part of the fiscal year 1999 budget.
This unfortunate swing of 300 FTE is now putting the VBA on the edge of the cliff toward a disastrous unfolding of the system. Today, we are again encouraged because of Congressman Evans' recent announcement to propose legislations for a quality assurance division in the VBA. But we also must remember that it is one thing to investigate quality problems. It is quite another to execute a corrective measure, plan the response to any findings of quality deficiencies.
Hopefully, as mentioned in Congressman Evans' announcement, the enhanceability to focus on training will be a benefit for the creation of this new division with VBA.
However, that is still not enough. Indeed, what is immediately required is an infusion of additional FTE beyond that to replace normal attrition. The fiscal year 1999 veterans' independent budget and policy provided justification for an increase of 500 FTE in the compensation and pension service while maintaining FTE at the 1997 level in VBA's other components.
And the IB for fiscal year 2000, again, did likewise with a slight modification to 400.
Page 36 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Mr. Chairman, Congress must now immediately act and provide the necessary appropriated funding to reverse this unhealthy personnel situation in the VBA. If we hope to have any further success towards the BPR goals of improved claims, timeliness, improved rating decisions, quality, and lower VBA remand rate.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement, and I would be glad to answer any questions.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Bradshaw appears on p. 68.]
Mr. QUINN. Thanks very much. Mr. Russo.
STATEMENT OF BILL RUSSO
Mr. RUSSO. Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, good morning. Vietnam Veterans of America is very encouraged by the efforts of Under Secretary Joe Thompson over the last year. The initiatives he has introduced and begun are already showing very positive results that are going to speed the timeliness of claims and improve the accuracy.
In particular, we approve of the pre-discharge examinations and claims filing; the TRIP initiative, which will allow the veterans' organizations to file claims electronically, which was mentioned earlier this morning. The Decision Review Officer Program is basically an arbitration-mediation type program.
And at the 12 test stations where that was run last year, the number of veterans who were dissatisfied with their VA decisions and appealed up to the Board of Veterans' Appeals that number went down by 62 percent. So you can see the overall healthy effect that would have on the Board, on the court, and on the whole claims system.
Probably the most important effort by Under Secretary Thompson has been the balanced score card. Now VA measures its performance not just in terms of timeliness but also in terms of accuracy and several other measures. And that is important. And speaking of accuracy, Vietnam Veterans of America strongly supports the legislation introduced last week by Congressman Evans, H.R. 1214, which will set up a quality assurance branch within the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Page 37 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC I do not think the bill or our support for it should in any way be construed as a lack of confidence in Under Secretary Thompson. It is not that at all. We would simply agree with the conclusion of the General Accounting Office that VBA should have the same objective means of measuring quality that other government agencies have.
One thing about that bill that was very well-drafted was that it gives VBA the authority to set up this quality assurance either within each service linecompensation, educationshould I continue or
Mr. QUINN. I was just going to suggest thatthat means a series of votes. So once Mr. Filner and I leave, it is likely we are going to be gone for a while, Mr. Russo. Could I ask you to be interrupted here just to give Mr. Thomas a chance to get a few minutes at least on the record, so that we can hear that before we leave?
Mr. RUSSO. Yes, absolutely. I did just want to, in one sentence, say we encourage the committee to also look at our written testimony regarding Hepatitis-C claims, and also regarding the rights of veterans to hire an attorney to represent them at the VA regional office, if they so choose. That is a very important issue.
Mr. QUINN. And you have spoken to us about that before. And for both of you who mentioned Mr. Evans' bill, H.R. 1214, we just took a look at it just now, and it looks favorable to me, too. I think you are right.
Mr. RUSSO. Good.
Mr. QUINN. Thank you very much for letting me interrupt you.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Russo appears on p. 71.]
Mr. QUINN. Mr. Thomas, can we give youask you to take a couple, three, or four minutes here before we have to trot over?
STATEMENT OF HARLEY THOMAS
Page 38 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC
Mr. THOMAS. Thanks, Mr. Chairman. I will try to skip through this real quick. We also are very pleased at Mr. Evans' introduction of H.R. 1214, and we back it highly. We think without question VBA needs quality assurance and reviews in the adjudication of veterans' claims for compensation, pension, education, rehab, and loan guarantee.
One of the things that PVA has been adamant about for the past 2 years is BVA's participation in defense of its decisions on appeal. And we were very pleased to find out in a March 12, 1999, letter from DVA, ''Although BVA denies any appropriate past procedures, effective immediately the General Counsel's staff will no longer consult Board staff with regard to proposed settlements of individual court cases.'' And in our opinion, this is a most appropriate decision.
And with that, I will just go ahead and close.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Thomas appears on p. 85.]
Mr. QUINN. Thank you. I appreciate that.
Rather thanI do not have an immediate question for either ofany of the three of you. But I know Mr. Thomasthat Mr. Thompson's staff, some are still here. I would be interested in whether or not he has had a chance to respond to H.R. 1214.
And I guess what I will do is rather than put you on the spot by asking you to do that now, or come to the microphone, I would be interested and ask you, Ms. Egan, if you could ask Joe to drop me a note with his opinions of H.R. 1214.
Ms. EGAN. We would be happy to do that.
Mr. QUINN. And, of course, whenever he does that, copy all of the members of the subcommittee, please. We hear some widespread support here this morning. Before we go too far forward, I would like to hear what he has to say.
Page 39 PREV PAGE TOP OF DOC Ms. EGAN. I would be happy to do that, sir, but I also can tell you that while it does have the executive branch requirements for review, they are aware of the bill. We appreciate the committee's intent in doing it, and their concern, and I think you will find that there will be support for it.
Mr. QUINN. Very good. Thank you. If he could get something to us in the nextwe are going to go to recess now, of course, in the next couple of weeks. But if he could get something over to us all by the time we return, that would be great. Okay?
I am going toBob, I do not know if you want to do some general questions right now. We have got about 3 or 4 minutes is all. Okay.
Thank you all for being here. We are not going to get to questions for this panel. That does not mean we do not love you. (Laughter.)
But it also means we have got a series of votes we have got to get to. I am going to say that we are closed and finish it up here today. Thank you all.
[Whereupon, at 11:19 a.m., the subcommittee was adjourned.]