Saturday, February 6, 2010

VCS calls for Real Change at VA for Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan Veterans

Prepared Oral Comments, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Hearing on VA’s 2011 Budget

By Paul Sullivan, Executive Director, Veterans for Common Sense

February 4, 2010

Chairman Filner, Ranking Member Buyer, and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting Veterans for Common Sense to testify about the Department of Veterans Affairs’ proposed budget for 2011.

VCS strongly endorses President Obama’s $125 billion VA budget, especially the new $300 million in funding to end homelessness by the end of 2014.

However, we do have some concerns about two cohorts of veterans: first, our Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and, second, our Gulf War veterans.

VCS urges Congress to require VA to develop more accurate casualty estimates as well as implement a long-range strategic casualty plan.

As of June 2009, VA reported 480,000 veteran patients and 442,000 disability claims from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  This is far above any worst case scenario for casualties. 
VA treats nearly 9,000 new patients per month from the two wars.  For VA’s 2012 budget, VA estimated less than 500,000 patients.  A more realistic estimate for 2012, based on VA data, is as high as 800,000 new patients and claims from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

One factor that may increase healthcare use and claims activity is multiple deployments, as Stanford University researchers estimated 35 percent of new war veterans may return with post traumatic stress disorder - PTSD.

VA’s failure to accurately forecast demand is serious because one-in-four patients wait more than one month to see a doctor.  According to the Veterans Benefits Administration, more than one million veterans are now waiting 161 days for an initial answer for a disability claim.

We are alarmed VA’s 2011 budget request shows VBA taking a staggering 190 days to process an initial claim.  That’s one more month of waiting for our veterans.

While we support hiring additional VBA staff to process the one-million claim backlog, VBA must also work smarter.  VCS urges Congress to fund development of a one-page claim form plus new, simpler regulations VBA staff can learn in six months, not the two-to-three years currently required.  VCS urges Congress to fund a specific program to implement the proposed lifetime electronic record to end the epidemic of lost and difficult-to-find military service and military medical records.

VCS supports the Veterans’ Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 as a strong move by Congress to improve quality at VBA.  We urge Congress to hold accountable those VBA leaders who openly flaunted the law by failing to provide several reports and implement sections of the new law designed to overhaul VBA’s broken claims system.

Specifically, VBA has not created temporary disability rating systems or reports required under Title II, Modernization of VA’s Disability Compensation System, Subtitle A, Benefits Matters, Section 211.

VCS remains deeply concerned that funding for the Board of Veterans Appeals only increased three percent when there is a backlog of 200,000 unprocessed appeals, and where veterans wait four years for a decision.

VCS also urges Congress to fund full-time, permanent VBA claims staff at every military discharge location plus every VHA medical center and clinic.

Here are some VCS budget recommendations for our Gulf War veterans.

First, VCS urges Congress to create and fund a robust Gulf War veteran advocacy committee to provide advice directly to VA Secretary Shinseki on Gulf War illness, treatments, and benefits.

Second, VCS urges Congress to fully fund the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program, that identifies “off the shelf” treatments.

Third, VCS encourages VA to restore funding for Dr. Robert Haley’s research at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.  VA’s IG confirms that VA Central Office employees “impeded the ability of the contracting officers . . . to effectively administer the contract.”  In our view, a few VA staff sabotaged Dr. Haley’s research.

Finally, Mr. Chairman, you are correct that VBA’s Veterans Benefits Management System is nothing more than a new name for several existing broken VBA computer systems.

Disney has Pixar studios, and James Cameron has his movie Avatar that thought outside the box.  VCS urges Congress to fund a high-priority task force to overhaul VBA immediately, from application to payment and access to healthcare

Essentially, if the VBA claims process can be described as a bridge, then the current one-lane obsolete wooden structure lacks the capacity to handle the millions of veterans now using it.  There are traffic jams trying to cross, and veterans constantly fall over the side or through the cracks and plunge into the icy waters below.

An entirely new concrete and steel high-capacity bridge needs to be built as a replacement.  The more time spent adding timber, changing the name, and applying paint to the wooden bridge only means more delays for our veterans seeking healthcare and benefits.

Thank you.  I will be glad to answer your questions.

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