Good afternoon, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Lamborn, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for giving Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) the opportunity to offer our comments on the progress with the pilot programs authorized under Public Law 110-389.
Before commenting on the situation to date, VVA notes that almost everything that is mandated to be tried in the pilot programs is just plain common sense, and most of the elements of the pilot probably could have been done by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) under already existing authorities, if they had the motivation and the drive to do so. The statute was written after extensive hearings in the Spring of 2008 in response to frustration legitimately expressed by veterans and their advocates about the inordinate delays in the processing of even relatively straightforward claims before the Compensation & Pension system. Further, the delays were compounded by a lack of information as to the status of the claim, whether additional information was needed to make an accurate decision, and if so what information in what form from what source would move the process forward. Many veterans, and their advocates, often felt that submitting a claim was like entering into a maze of a process that would rival anything that Franz Kafka might have dreamed up in one of his stories.
A number of “roundtable” discussions resulted in frustration for all concerned, largely because all of the Members and the advocates participating in the discussions kept talking about individual veterans and what was happening to that individual citizen who believed they had been injured by virtue of military service to country, whereas the VBA officials kept talking about processes and mean average of time taken in activities performed on claims. Not to put too fine a point on it, the VA folks appeared to think in terms of system processes and everyone else in terms of what happens to the individual, and how he or she experiences what is and is not happening to them.
The effort to implement the Veterans Claims Assistance Act (VCAA) had become so legalistic and seemingly complicated that many claimants could no longer understand the letters of notification that VA sent to them after initially filing a claim. The General Accounting Office (GAO took VA to task for not doing more to simplify the process so the claimant could more effectively respond to what was required, and for sending out poorly written and/or unnecessarily densely worded letters to veterans. What the Pilot program required is a test in a limited number of offices whereby half of the claimants would be sent out a straightforward “check list” that clearly noted “by the numbers” exactly what was needed from the veteran in order to move to a decision on his or her claim, and the other half would NOT get the check list, but would get the aforementioned letter.
The VA contracted with the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) to assist with the evaluation of the data from the first six months of the pilot, or December of 2008 to June of 2009. The focus of the analysis is to determine whether the use of the check list with the letter actually sped up the adjudication process. Because so many claims were still in the process of waiting to be adjudicated at the end of the six month period, the CNA and the VBA noted that any such conclusions one way or the other could not be ascertained.
The question of whether the individual veterans and/or their advocates felt better about the process, or better understood what was still needed, and how to get it, was not covered in the data that we have seen.
From what we have been given to understand, there is a separate report/analysis of the aspect of the pilot that focuses on fully developed claims, but we have been unable to secure any information on this separate project. One would assume that there is a separate CNA aided report to the Congress, but we have yet to see it.
VVA has said for some years that most of what is wrong with the C&P system can be fixed under existing statutory authority. We have further advocated that essentially a week with the major stakeholders locked in a room would produce the models and agreements needed to move us toward a system that works for the individual veteran who has been lessened by virtue of his or her military service to country in the military. These steps would include, but not be limited to: 1) common training for VA, VSOs, state and local government employees, and others; 2) A common competency based exam for all who touch a claim; and, 3) organizing the claims file so that documents are in a set order in every claimant’s file, with the most salient documents at the front of the file; and, 4) a decision template for every claimant that summarizes the key elements of the claim; and, 5) “express lines” for presumptive and other “ready to rate” claims; and, 6) systematic efforts to put all info in electronic form by means of Optical Character Recognition (OCR) or even ICR so that one can do a key word search of files; and, 7) work with the Armed Services Committee to begin the process of digitizing all unit and individual records.
The two day meeting regarding the rating schedule for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of VSO/MSO advocates with representatives of the Veterans Benefits Administration, representatives of the Veterans Health Administration, representatives of the Department of Defense, and at least some Congressional staff gave us more hope that reasonable solutions can be achieved by sitting and reasoning together than we have had in very long time. Maybe it is the right time to move forward together, and to do what can be done by agreement, and then lock it into statute after we get it to work.
Again, thank you for allowing us to present information here today, Mr. Chairman. I will be pleased to answer any questions.
VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA PRIVATE
February 3, 2010
The national organization Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) is a non-profit veteran’s membership organization registered as a 501(c) (19) with the Internal Revenue Service. VVA is also appropriately registered with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives in compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.
VVA is not currently in receipt of any federal grant or contract, other than the routine allocation of office space and associated resources in VA Regional Offices for outreach and direct services through its Veterans Benefits Program (Service Representatives). This is also true of the previous two fiscal years.
For Further Information, Contact:
Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs
Vietnam Veterans of America
(301) 585-4000, extension 127
RICHARD “Rick” WEIDMAN
Richard F. “Rick” Weidman serves as Executive Director for Policy & Government Affairs on the National Staff of Vietnam Veterans of America. As such, he is the primary spokesperson for VVA in Washington. He served as a 1-A-O Army Medical Corpsman during the Vietnam war, including service with Company C, 23rd Med, AMERICAL Division, located in I Corps of Vietnam in 1969.
Mr. Weidman was part of the staff of VVA from 1979 to 1987, serving variously as Membership Services Director, Agency Liaison, and Director of Government Relations. Rick left VVA staff in 1987 to serve in the Administration of Governor Mario M. Cuomo (NY) as statewide director of veterans’ employment & training (State Veterans Programs Administrator) for the New York State Department of Labor. From 1995 to 1997 he served as Senior Advisor to the Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee of the New York State Assembly. He returned to the VVA staff in 1998.
He has served as Consultant on Legislative Affairs to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV), and served at various times on the VA Readjustment Advisory Committee, the Secretary of Labor’s Advisory Committee on Veterans Employment & Training, the President’s Committee on Employment of Persons with Disabilities - Subcommittee on Disabled Veterans, Advisory Committee on veterans’ entrepreneurship at the Small Business Administration, and numerous other advocacy posts in veteran affairs. He was recently elected to another term as Chairman of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Task Force (VET-Force), which is the consortium of some major veterans groups and military groups as well as veteran and service disabled veteran small business owners that is dedicated to expanding opportunities for veterans, particularly disabled veterans, to own and successfully operate their own small business, to include seeking to secure better Federal procurement policies and practices.
Mr. Weidman was an instructor and administrator at Johnson State College (Vermont) in the 1970s, where he was also active in community and veterans affairs. He attended Colgate University (B.A., 1967), and did graduate study at the University of Vermont.
He is married and has four children.