DOCUMENT TAMPERING AND MISHANDLING AT THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

 


 JOINT HEARING

BEFORE  THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS

AND THE

SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS

OF THE

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

ONE HUNDRED ELEVENTH CONGRESS

FIRST SESSION


MARCH 3, 2009


SERIAL No. 111-4


Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs

 

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COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS

BOB FILNER, California, Chairman

 

CORRINE BROWN, Florida
VIC SNYDER, Arkansas
MICHAEL H. MICHAUD, Maine
STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN, South Dakota
HARRY E. MITCHELL, Arizona
JOHN J. HALL, New York
DEBORAH L. HALVORSON, Illinois
THOMAS S.P. PERRIELLO, Virginia
HARRY TEAGUE, New Mexico
CIRO D. RODRIGUEZ, Texas
JOE DONNELLY, Indiana
JERRY MCNERNEY, California
ZACHARY T. SPACE, Ohio
TIMOTHY J. WALZ, Minnesota
JOHN H. ADLER, New Jersey
ANN KIRKPATRICK, Arizona
GLENN C. NYE, Virginia

STEVE BUYER,  Indiana, Ranking
CLIFF STEARNS, Florida
JERRY MORAN, Kansas
HENRY E. BROWN, JR., South Carolina
JEFF MILLER, Florida
JOHN BOOZMAN, Arkansas
BRIAN P. BILBRAY, California
DOUG LAMBORN, Colorado
GUS M. BILIRAKIS, Florida
VERN BUCHANAN, Florida
DAVID P. ROE, Tennessee

 

 

 

Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director


SUBCOMMITTEE ON DISABILITY ASSISTANCE AND MEMORIAL AFFAIRS
JOHN J. HALL, New York, Chairman

DEBORAH L. HALVORSON, Illinois
JOE DONNELLY, Indiana
CIRO D. RODRIGUEZ, Texas
ANN KIRKPATRICK, Arizona
DOUG LAMBORN, Colorado, Ranking
JEFF MILLER, Florida
BRIAN P. BILBRAY, California

SUBCOMMITTEE ON OVERSIGHT AND INVESTIGATIONS
HARRY E. MITCHELL, Arizona, Chairman

ZACHARY T. SPACE, Ohio
TIMOTHY J. WALZ, Minnesota
JOHN H. ADLER, New Jersey
JOHN J. HALL, New York
DAVID P. ROE, Tennessee, Ranking
CLIFF STEARNS, Florida
BRIAN P. BILBRAY, California

Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.

 

       

C O N T E N T S
March 3, 2009


Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

OPENING STATEMENTS

Chairman John J. Hall, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
    Prepared statement of Chairman Hall
Chairman Harry E. Mitchell, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
    Prepared statement of Chairman Mitchell
Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
    Prepared statement of Congressman Lamborn
Hon. David P. Roe, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations
    Prepared statement of Congressman Roe
Hon. Deborah L. Halvorson
Hon. Ann Kirkpatrick
Hon. Timothy J. Walz


WITNESSES

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs:
Belinda J. Finn, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, Office of Inspector General
    Prepared statement of Ms. Finn
Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration
    Prepared statement of Mr. Walcoff


American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, Geneva Moore, Senior Veterans Service  Representative, Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office, Winston-Salem, NC, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
    Prepared statement of Ms. Moore
Disabled American Veterans, Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director
    Prepared statement of Mr. Baker
Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., Kathryn A. Witt, Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee
    Prepared statement of Ms. Witt
National Veterans Legal Services Program, Ronald B. Abrams, Joint Executive Director
    Prepared statement of Mr. Abrams


SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD

Frasier, Susan R., Albany, NY, statement
Priessman, Master Sergeant Kurt, USAF (Ret.), Vernon, TX, statement
Simmons, Berta M., Cohocton, NY, letter


MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD

News Article:

"Veterans Affairs Probe: Records Found in Shredder BinEmployee Under Investigation," The State, By Chuck Crumbo, November 6, 2009

Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record:

Hon. Ann Kirkpatrick, Member of Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, to Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 4, 2009, and VA responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans, letter dated March 25, 2009, and DAV responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Ronald Abrams, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program, letter dated March 25, 2009, and NVLSP responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Kathryn Witt, Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., letter dated March 25, 2009, and GSW responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Marilyn Park, Legislative Representative, American Federation of Government Employees, letter dated March 25, 2009, and AFGE responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Belinda Finn, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 25, 2009, and response letter dated April 23, 2009, from Hon. George Opfer, Inspector General, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 25, 2009, and VA responses

Hon. George Opfer, Inspector General, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter to Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, letter dated March 26, 2009  [An identical letter was sent to Hon. Harry E. Mitchell, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Hon. David P. Roe, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Veterans' Affairs.]


DOCUMENT TAMPERING AND MISHANDLING AT THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS


Tuesday, March 3, 2009
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs,
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
Washington, DC.

The Subcommittees met, pursuant to notice, at 1:35 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. John J. Hall [Chairman of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs] presiding.

Present from Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs: Representatives Hall, Halvorson, Kirkpatrick, Lamborn, Bilbray.

Present from Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations: Representatives Mitchell, Space, Walz, Roe, Bilbray.

OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN HALL

Mr. HALL.  Good afternoon.  The Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Hearing on Document Tampering and Mishandling at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will now come to order.  I would ask everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance.  The flags are at both the front and rear of the room.

[Pledge of Allegiance.]

I welcome you today for our first hearing during the 111th Congress, and I am pleased to be joined by my colleague, Harry Mitchell, Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.  We expect to be joined at some point by the Chairman of the full Committee, Congressman Bob Filner, who has been leading the way in making the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) an advocacy system rather than an adversarial one.  Of course, we have our Ranking Member from the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, Congressman Lamborn, and the Ranking Member of Oversight and Investigations, Mr. Roe.  I welcome all of you.

Congress' accomplishments for veterans last year were great and substantial.  I am eager to see implementation of P.L. 110-389, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2008, that will take steps in righting the many wrongs in the VA claims processing system.  However, there is still much more room for improvement and this promises to be a very active Congress with a new Secretary we are all eager to work with.

It is regrettable that we are starting this Congress with so many untoward problems within the VBA claims processing system making news headlines.  In the last few months, we have tracked the problems brought to our attention with misdating of claims at the New York Regional Office (RO), documents wrongly placed in shredder bins, and denying widows their survivor benefits.

It pains me as a representative from the State of New York to say that the situation in New York was a clear attempt by managers to fudge performance numbers.  The incorrectly entered data made the Regional Office look like it took fewer days to process claims than it did in actuality, yet still beyond acceptable levels to me or to most veterans.  Although veterans were not directly harmed by this practice, perpetrators of this kind of dishonesty impact the entire veterans' community's ability to trust the institution charged with its welfare.  This is shameful.

On the heels of this revelation, there were reports of documents inappropriately placed in shredder bins, many needed to process claims, that would have been returned or should have been returned to the veteran, but were dumped for shredding.  As a result, some veterans' claims were harmed and adjudication did not properly take place.  This is even more shameful.

And finally, we saw headlines about widows being cheated out of millions of dollars over a 12-year period while the VA ignored Congress' intent to help these very same widows.  VA explains this oversight as a computer glitch.  But again the result is shameful.

The misdating, shredding, and glitches that the media had recently reported, I am afraid, are only the tip of the iceberg.  I have heard too many accounts from veterans and their survivors about missing, lost, or destroyed files, and VA sending them multiple requests for information then still not knowing where a file is or who had it last. 

Even when the veteran or survivor has sent documents return receipt requested, VA manages to not know their whereabouts.  Besides the infamous fire in St. Louis and the current shredding issue, claim folders have managed to be lost or destroyed in many other ways over the years.  This has included records being misfiled or misplaced within a Regional Office, lost in transit between Regional Offices, medical, pension, insurance or debt management centers, the Board of Veterans Appeals, the Appeals Management Center, or the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, not to mention the issues with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) sharing. 

Even further beyond comprehension are the accusations by veterans and their families that VA employees would purposefully and maliciously destroy, falsify, or steal a claim folder to avoid granting a benefit.  A lot of VA employees touch a claim folder, but rarely is anyone held accountable or responsible when it is lost or destroyed.  Furthermore, we are still talking about an outdated system that is heavily dependent upon paper records.  So it is easy to conceive how a paper document can be mishandled.  An electronic system from application to adjudication could mitigate some of these losses if properly implemented, unlike the way it was handled for widows expecting a month of death benefit or at the RO in New York.  This is where new approaches to leadership and oversight are crucial and accountability is essential.

Today's witnesses will provide us with an overview of these problems.  We will hear from the veterans' service organizations and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) who will provide us with insights into how veterans and their dependents are harmed when VA mishandles their documents and how improvements can be made to the system.

Next, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) will share what it has learned about document mishandling.  Finally, the Under Secretary for Benefits and the Systematic Technical Accuracy Review Office will give us their feedback on these problems and hopefully outline a strategic plan for the future that will correct the records mismanagement problems we have seen in the past.  So I am grateful that the Deputy Under Secretary is here himself today because the accountability issue begins with top leadership.

I have been on a track to modernize the VBA's antiquated claims processing system and envision the VA as an agency that we as a Nation are proud of in the way that it serves the welfare of our disabled veterans.   When it comes to discharging those responsibilities, shameful acts are what should be archaic practices.  We look forward to eliminating those practices.

I now yield to Congressman Mitchell, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, for his opening statement.

Mr. Mitchell?

[The prepared statement of Chairman Hall appears in the Appendix.]

OPENING STATEMENT OF CHAIRMAN MITCHELL

Mr. MITCHELL.  First, thank you Chairman Hall and the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee for working with the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee to convene this hearing.

For too long, the spotty record of the Department of Veterans Affairs has led veterans and observers to view the Department as the worst kind of bureaucracy, massive, aloof, and unaccountable.  Today, we have the opportunity to address a number of bureaucratic shortcomings and to take a step toward a more personable, accessible, and accountable VA.

Some mistakes have already been addressed.  I am encouraged that the VA is taking steps to compensate the widows of veterans whose benefits were wrongly docked when their spouses passed away.  I look forward to receiving a status update from the VA.

However, we now have learned that the shredding of documents may only be the tip of a very large iceberg.  VA's Inspector General tells us that in July of 2007, the Detroit Regional Office had a "mail amnesty" during which employees could turn in unprocessed mail and documents without repercussion. 

Detroit Regional Office employees produced almost 16,000 items, 16,000.  Among these were 700 claims and 2,700 medical records and/or pieces of medical information.  None of these claims or documents was in the VBA information system or associated claims files.  The OIG was told by the VBA regional director that there were amnesties at other Regional Offices as well. 

Obviously, we are going to have to get complete information from VA about these amnesties.  But it is impossible not to be shocked by the number from Detroit.  Shredding documents or burying them in the bottom drawer is a breach of trust by the VA.  Whether that breach of trust comes as a consequence of inadequate training or negligent or deliberate behavior, Congress must not and will not tolerate it.

We will also hear testimony about data tampering that inaccurately reflected claims processing speeds at Regional Offices.  A decision by management to lie about performance indicates creeping institutional decay that must be rooted out before it further erodes quality of care.  The VA must restore integrity to its systems—its claim system and redeem the trust of veterans it serves.

I am eager to hear a detailed account of these issues from the Inspector General's office.  And I trust that the VA will provide a candid explanation about what went wrong and how they would ensure it never happens again.

I am also eager to hear from the veterans service organizations (VSOs) about the impact of these failures on the veterans' community and from the American Federation of Government Employees about the effectiveness of VBA policy.

Mistakes like these simply need not happen.  They are avoidable as they are awful.  And they rob us of time that could otherwise be spent planning outreach to veterans, easing the transition from soldier to civilian, or constructing a 21st Century benefits program. 

But, I am heartened by the vision, dedication, and know-how that Secretary Shinseki brings with him to the task of serving America's veterans.  I am hopeful the VA can avoid similar pitfalls under his leadership.

Thank you to our panelists for appearing today.  I look forward to working with you to achieve the openness, accountability, and action that veterans deserve from the VA.

[The prepared statement of Chairman Mitchell appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Chairman Mitchell, Chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. 

I would now yield to Ranking Member Lamborn for his opening statement.

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. DOUG LAMBORN

Mr. LAMBORN.  Good afternoon, Mr. Chairmen, and thank you.  I am very happy to be back as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.  I greatly enjoyed the favorable rapport we developed last Congress and the bipartisan manner in which you and I and our staffs worked together.  I look forward to another productive session.

I would like to welcome our colleagues from the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation and all of our witnesses who are here today, including my counterpart on that Subcommittee, the Ranking Member Dr. Phil Roe of Tennessee. 

Mr. Chairman, we made a lot of progress in the last Congress toward modernizing and improving the VA claims processing system.  And it is my hope that the reforms we put in place in Public Law 110-389 will help prevent future document management problems like the ones we are examining today. 

I would also like to thank you for endorsing my idea to require VA to move toward a paperless rules-based adjudication system.  While the paperless system is not a panacea, you and I both know that if VA's files were all electronic, the shredding incident could have been avoided.  I thank VA for acknowledging that in their testimony. 

When a veteran submits a claim for disability compensation, they must be able to have trust that VA will adjudicate their claims in a timely and accurate fashion.  Unfortunately, the shredding accident has violated this trust for many veterans.  And it is now VA's job to regain it.

What troubles me the most about the shredding incident is that the number of documents VA found during its spot check was merely a one-day snapshot of what appears to be an ongoing problem.  VA will probably never know how long this mishandling has been going on or how widespread the practice was. 

However, I do applaud VA for their swift action in removing the employees that were responsible for the documents that were found.  I find it very unfortunate that the actions of a few have tarnished the work of so many dedicated VA employees.

Veterans need to be able to trust the integrity of the VA system.  And I believe they are on the path to regaining this trust.  I do believe, however, that VA's current plan to have every document signed off by two people before it can be shredded is potentially inefficient.  I encourage the VA to find a more reasonable approach to protecting claimant's files without adversely affecting production.  And I hope today's discussion will produce some possible alternative solutions. 

Another focus of this hearing is the misdating of claims at the New York Regional Office and other offices around the country.  As disturbing as this is, I am relieved to know that the actions of a few individuals have not adversely affected any veterans or survivors.  However, these actions underscore the need to review and possibly change VA's work management program.  Such review was mandated by Public Law 110-389.  And I look forward to hearing more about this review once it is completed. 

I am reassured by the findings of the Inspector General that the problem is not believed to be systemic and that the employees involved in the backdating have been removed. 

That concludes my statement, Mr. Chairmen.  I thank the witnesses for their attendance here today.  And I look forward to their testimony.  And I yield back. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Lamborn.  Thank you for your steadfast advocacy of the paperless system that we are all hoping to move toward. 

Now I would like to yield to the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Congressman Roe, for his statement.  

[The prepared statement of Congressman Lamborn appears in the Appendix.]

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. DAVID P. ROE

Mr. ROE.  Thank you for yielding, Mr. Chairman. 

I would like to start by saying that I am looking forward to working with the Members of both of the Subcommittees here today, and particularly with you, Mr. Mitchell, and the other Members of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations as the Ranking Member of the Subcommittee. 

I understand that you and my predecessor, Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite, had an excellent working relationship on this Committee.  And I hope that we can continue in that vein as we conduct oversight on issues relating to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and work to assist those who sacrificed so much for the good of our country, our Nation's veterans.  We owe them no less.

The issue at hand, document mishandling and shredding at the Department of Veterans Affairs is one of great concern.  When these issues came to the forefront of our scope back in early October of last year, an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General showed that documents necessary for processing claims were found in shredding bins at several Veteran Benefits Administration facilities.  Further issues arose from documents with an adjusted date-of-claims, which initiated a request by the Ranking Member Buyer on October 14, 2008, for an OIG investigation into the issue.

Our Nation's veterans deserve better than this.  The mishandling of their claims documents is inexcusable.  The VA is responsible for assuring our Nation's veterans that they will be given every opportunity to submit these claims and have their complete claims file reviewed in a timely manner.  I appreciate that the former Secretary Peake took immediate action to address these issues.  And I look forward to hearing from today's witnesses on what further actions have been taken to rectify this situation.

Again, thank you Mr. Chairman, and I yield back.

[The prepared statement of Congressman Roe appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.   Thank you, Dr. Roe. 

I will now recognize other Members who would like to make an opening statement.  Mrs. Halvorson?

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. DEBORAH L. HALVORSON

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I just want to say as one of the new people here that I'm very pleased that the VA seems to understand the seriousness of the situation.  And I am very anxious to be a part of figuring out how it is that we continue to work towards eliminating this sort of problem and bring about trust back to the situation. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Congresswoman.

Mr. Bilbray?

Mr. BILBRAY.  Mr. Chairman, I have no opening statement.  I just ask forI would like to apologize.  I am going to need to leave and enter this hearing.  I just had a report by the Marine Corps of an incident—an aircraft incident that had fatalities.  And so I would—it is just being released today, so I will be responding to that.  Just so you know that I am not trying to be rude.  It is just part of the job.  Thank you. 

Mr. HALL.  Okay.  Thank you for the explanation in advance.  You will be excused without any problem. 

Mrs. Kirkpatrick?

OPENING STATEMENT HON. ANN KIRKPATRICK

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I am honored to be here today with you and the other distinguished Members on the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.  Thank you to all of you for taking the time and making the journey to be with us today. 

Events like those discussed today remind me why this Committee's work is so important.  We are here to ensure our VA operation and our country live up to and fulfill our commitment to our veterans.  This is an important opportunity to discuss and evaluate the impact of VA policies on the real-life experience of veterans and their families. 

Trust needs to be the starting point when it comes to our veterans.  When they sign up, our servicemembers put the entirety of their trust in their government.  They trust that while serving they will be well equipped, that they will deploy responsibly, and they will be treated with dignity and fairness after their tour, enlistment, and service is complete. 

And in return for that trust, our servicemembers give entirely of themselves.  I have met with many veterans.  And no matter how many times I hear their stories, I am reminded that the pride, honor, and sacrifice with which they have lived their lives is truly special.  We owe our veterans for their courage, their willingness to serve, and sacrifice.

Now I don't have to tell any of the veterans here that there is no place where rumors circulate faster than inside a military barracks or inside a Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. 

So when veterans and servicemembers hear about things like shredding of claims documents, backdated forms, or unpaid widows, it creates cynicism within the ranks and among our veterans.  It hurts recruiting numbers.  But most of all and most importantly, it undermines the compact of trust we have entered into with our veterans. 

To the leadership of the Veterans Affairs, I am heartened by your quick action.  I know that the behavior discussed today is not representative of your leadership nor the vast majority of the employees within the VA. 

However, I don't think it can be repeated enough just how serious these events are.  This past Saturday I had an opportunity to visit the veterans' hospital in my district, which is in Prescott, Arizona.  And I also went to the American Legion and visited with veterans there. 

The veterans I represent expressed skepticism and often frustration regarding the distant, often faceless claims process.  To gain back their trust, I hope you understand that you will have to work twice as hard to not only hold accountable those responsible, but to find and address the underlying issues that caused this to happen in the first place.

Chairman Hall, I look forward to working with you and learning from my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.  I hope we can take the extra step, as our veterans have to make sure that they receive the benefits they have earned.

Thank you and I yield back my time.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. 

Mr. Walz, do you have an opening statement?

OPENING STATEMENT OF HON. TIMOTHY J. WALZ

Mr. WALZ.  Just a brief one.  And thank you, Mr. Chairman, both Chairmen and both Ranking Members, for your ever diligent work, and to the staffs on both these Subcommittees.  You have been absolutely relentless in making sure we get it right for our veterans.  So I thank you for that.  And for all of our witnesses who are here today. 

I would have to say and I would associate myself with—Mr. Lamborn brought up a very good point, I think.  The incredible work that the VA does on behalf of our veterans.  And I see it every day.  When I am out there I talk to our veterans.  Rightfully called the best healthcare anywhere.  And we know that is the case.  And we also know that it is our job and it is these VSOs' job to not only be the biggest supporters but to be the harshest critics. 

Painting it with a broad brush.  Heaven knows this group up here, we get painted with a pretty broad brush.  But the fact of the matter is we have taken jobs of leadership, both the VA and us sitting up here.  And it is a zero sum game.  We always have to strive for absolute perfection when it comes to the care of our veterans.  We may not always get there.  But it has to be in the best efforts.  So this is an important issue we are dealing with.  It is a challenging one.  Again, I would associate myself with my colleagues on the VA's effort on this and their forthrightness is greatly appreciated. 

But we have got much work to do.  And especially in this environment where reform and efficiency are going to be the key.  There are scarce resources.  They must be delivered correctly.  And we have to find a way to get better at that.  And I am still baffled that I can send a package anywhere in the world and get online and track that through UPS and know right where it is and who signed it.  And yet I have got veterans 2 years later wondering where in the heck their file is, who saw it, and what is going on with it.

So we have got to just get this done.  We have got to move forward.  And if you don't need any more proof than that, I will tell you I have seen this group speak often.  And Ms. Witt is going to speak in a moment.  When our Nation's Gold Star Wives have to come in front of us and tell us what is going wrong and the difficulties they have receiving benefits after their spouses gave their life in defense of this country, the bottom line is we are wrong.  And it needs to be fixed.  And we need to get there together.  Bringing the two Subcommittees together is absolutely what we need to do, cut through this, find some solutions, cut down on the backlogs of claims, get them right, and get the trust built back up.  That is our responsibility.  And that is our charge.

So, Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing.  And I yield back.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Walz.  I think you may have come up with the solution.  It is sort of like that commercial I have been seeing on TV where you put a delivery company in charge of getting kids to schools.

Mr. Space, I yield to you for an opening statement.

Mr. SPACE.  In associating myself with remarks of Mr. Walz, I yield my time. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Space.  Thank you to all of our witnesses for being here today.  I would remind you that your complete written statements will be made a part of the hearing record, so you can limit your remarks.  That way we will have sufficient time to follow up with questions once everyone has had the opportunity to provide their testimony.

On our first panel, is Mr. Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans (DAV); Mr. Ronald Abrams, Joint Executive Director for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP); Ms. Kathryn Witt, Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee for Gold Star Wives of America, Inc.; and Ms. Geneva Moore, Senior Veterans Representative—Service Representative for the Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Welcome, Mr. Baker, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.

STATEMENTS OF KERRY BAKER, ASSISTANT NATIONAL LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, DISABLED AMERICAN VETERANS; RONALD B. ABRAMS, JOINT EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL VETERANS LEGAL SERVICES PROGRAM; KATHRYN A. WITT, CO-CHAIR, GOVERNMENT RELATIONS COMMITTEE, GOLD STAR WIVES OF AMERICA, INC.; AND GENEVA MOORE, SENIOR VETERANS SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION REGIONAL OFFICE, WINSTON-SALEM, NC, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS, ON BEHALF OF THE AMERICAN FEDERATION OF GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES, AFL-CIO

STATEMENT OF KERRY BAKER

Mr. BAKER.  Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittees, it is a pleasure to be here today on behalf of the DAV.  I look forward to discussing the recent document tampering and mishandling by the VA. 

The issues of concern began on or about August 20th, 2008, when VA's Office of Inspector General initiated an audit of mail processing at four different locations.  The team found 36 pieces of active mail and 93 other pieces of documents in the shred bins.

The documents identified were both original claims and evidence in support of existing claims.  The VA's Secretary ordered all shredding stopped followed by a search of all VA Regional Offices where approximately 500 other documents were found marked for unauthorized shredding. 

The VA then drafted an action plan that implemented numerous overlapping procedures to eliminate any repeat records mishandling.  The draft plan even included the creation of additional positions within VA that require active, hand's on management of all documents marked for destruction. 

In addition to the action plan, special but temporary procedures were also put in place concerning VA claimants who assert they have been harmed by these mishaps. 

The DAV will not attempt to minimize the severity of this situation.  The questions of how long this has been going on and how many VA claimants have been affected will forever go unanswered.

However, scrutinizing and casting blame is easy.  If we all are to act as leaders in the veteran community, then we must recognize the challenge before us.  Not merely how to prevent such acts in the future, but how to recognize the faults in the current system that allow these actions to take place.  Once acknowledged and understood, we must progressively change the structure to remove those faults.  In our written testimony, we commended the VA for having detected these unlawful deeds through its own audit functions in implementing such a detailed plan meant to prevent similar actions in the future.  We reiterate that commendation here today. 

Nonetheless, we also recommended that Congress amend the law to punish VA employees who unlawfully withhold benefits from claimants, the same as it punishes those who unlawfully obtain benefits.  The message must be that if you illegally destroy records, you will go to jail.  Ultimately, the DAV believes these were desperate, albeit irresponsible and unlawful acts, of a workforce near its breaking point. 

The solution is clear.  The VA must go paperless.  This has long been a goal of Congress and the VA.  The VA must be up for the challenge.  And Congress must provide any needed funding.

The VA has already begun to utilize paperless solutions in many of its functions.  While they are promising, each of these programs are small compared to the remaining bulk of VA's paper-locked workload. 

The DAV believes the one solution that Congress must consider above all else is to immediately authorize and fund the formation of one or more large-scale imaging centers.  Such facilities should have the sole function of transforming paper records into electronic format.

The formation of imaging centers could then free VA's moderate-sized staff who are tasked with receiving incoming and managing existing paper records.  VA managers could then utilize the sizable workforce required for these functions to assisting claims development and adjudication.

The idea of transforming the paper-locked records system to an electronic system is neither novel nor new.  Rather it has been the centerpiece of all legitimate discussions on improving the claims process.  Ultimately denying earned benefits by illegally destroying records should serve as the wake-up call that signals the urgency of this overdue transformation.  It should be one of the highest priorities within the Benefits Administration.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my oral statement.  It has been an honor to testify before you today.  And I look forward to any questions you may have.

[The prepared statement of Mr. Baker appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Baker. 

Mr. Abrams, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.

STATEMENT OF RONALD B. ABRAMS

Mr. ABRAMS.  Thank you Mr. Chairmen and Members.

I am honored to be here again today to talk about this very serious problem.  Rather than go over what happened, I am going to try and focus on why it happened and what we can do about the problem. 

I would like to start by reminding some of us who are my age that there was a television show back in the 1950s, Lucy.  And there was an episode in Lucy where she and her friend Ethel got a job at a candy factory producing candy.  And they were working on a production line.  And they were told that if they let one piece of candy pass them without getting wrapped, they would be fired.  So what happened?  First the candies came out slowly.  And then the supervisor came by and yelled, "Let her roll."  And the candies came out faster and faster.  And no one could wrap them.  So what did Ethel and Lucy do?  They put them in their blouse; they put them in their pockets; they put them in their hat; and put the hat back on.  They had one of those candy hats.  And they ate them.  They cheated. 

This is analogous to what is happening in the VA.  Too many claims, too fast, a production quota or—it is not a real quota.  But it is a system that pushes production.  It is not right. 

We at NVLSP believe that longstanding VA policies were the major cause of this employee misconduct.  Essentially the way the VA grants work credit and assesses the performance of VA workers and managers is the main problem.

In our experience, most of the problems are an attempt by VA workers to prematurely issue a decision on a claim before the evidence the VA is required to get to help the veteran is associated with the file.  And this rush causes many incomplete VA claims adjudications.  The VA emphasizes quantity over quality. 

This work system, this work measurement system, needs to be changed.  It needs to be changed, because it creates a cynicism among VA workers.  They think it is okay to go too fast, to not get all evidence.  And that might lead to hiding evidence, putting it in a drawer, throwing it away.  We need to change that.  We need to promote managers who manage people who do good work as well as fast work.

So here are some of the things that we think should be done.  First, we need to hold VA adjudicators and managers accountable for the quality of their work.  We need rational performance standards.  The VA employees I know are good.  They want to do a good job.  But they are pressured to go very, very fast.

Second, they need to change the way they measure work.   Work credit should not be granted until the actual appellate period ends.  In that way all work will be done up front. 

And third, the VA needs to create an independent quality review system that is outside the supervision of VBA.

Thank you for letting us testify today.

[The prepared statement of Mr. Abrams appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Abrams.  Good timing. 

Now I would like to recognize Ms. Kathryn Witt for 5 minutes.

STATEMENT OF KATHRYN A. WITT

Ms. WITT.  Thank you for allowing Gold Star Wives the privilege of testifying today.

I tend to agree with both of the people who spoke before me that the employees are under too much pressure.  They do this to get rid of this back load.  The inability to get rid of the back load tends to create a greater back load, because when they can't find the claim, then the veteran or the survivor resubmits it again and again.  I have one lady that has been asked to prove that she was married to her husband and they had three children three separate times.  I have another lady that has filed four appeals, two of which have been lost twice.

What they need to do is automate the system.  Most records as they come in the door need to be scanned into a computer and assigned a line number or a customer number and cross indexed against the veteran's Social Security—the veteran's name and Social Security number so that they—the previous documents and claims can be retrieved.

They also need an explanation when they send a claim out of what they have actually paid, and why they paid it, and how.  Usually known as a detailed—an itemized voucher.  Our survivors frequently get claims they have no idea what they are for.  And if they have several claims, they have no idea what has been processed.  And they submit another claim.

We have concern about the backlog on—particularly on Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).  It is taking a long time to process DIC.  It often leaves the widows destitute.  They have no other funds.  If their husbands have been service connected and they have been at home caring for them, his check stops.  And his compensation check stops.  And they have no other income.  We are concerned about the delay in that.

And we are concerned about the delays in processing CHAMPVA, which is the VA's health insurance.  It frequently takes—I am hearing 9 to 12 months to get an application for CHAMPVA processed and approved.  Both of those are pretty cut and dried claims that could easily be processed by computer. 

I believe that every claim that the VA receives should be scanned—completely scanned into the computer.  I think that is the only way you are ever going to get rid of this backlog.  And then you can track them and cross index them by name and Social Security number.  And at least respond to people when they call about their claim to say yes we have it, so that you don't get four or five more claims in. 

Thank you.

[The prepared statement of Ms. Witt appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Ms. Witt. 

I would like to at this time recognize Geneva Moore, Senior Veterans Service Representative for the VBA Regional Office in Winston-Salem.  You are recognized for 5 minutes.

STATEMENT OF GENEVA MOORE

Ms. MOORE.  Thank you.  Chairman Hall, Chairman Mitchell, Members of the Subcommittee, it is my honor and pleasure to be here today to testify on behalf of the many thousands of VBA employees represented by the AFGE.

I am a retired Marine Corps Master Sergeant and a proud Gulf War veteran.  I am equally proud of the important work that I do as a Senior Veteran Service Representative (VSR) to ensure that my fellow veterans are properly compensated for their service-connected disabilities. 

More than half of the employees at our Regional Office are veterans and most are service-connected disabled.  As veterans helping veterans, we who also borne the battle, do our jobs with tremendous sympathy and compassion for our fellow veterans.

AFGE absolutely does not condone what has gone on with regard to misplaced or shredded claims files.  We are 150 percent committed to do all that we can do.  And we want to help VBA fix this problem.  But management is not willing to come to the table with us to come up with a workable solution to the shredding problem.

If I were in management, it would make perfect sense to me to solicit the input from the employees who actually process the claims.  In the Marine Corps, we work as a team.  And we are able to resolve problems through effective, positive communication.  But VBA has shut us out completely, the employees. 

I was at the VBA Academy when I first heard the shredding reports.  Management presented us with the national rules of behavior and demanded that we sign on the spot without any training or opportunity to ask questions or seek further guidance.  We were told that we would face discipline or possible termination if we did not sign this national rules of behavior.

When I returned back to my RO, we were given only 1-day notice of a desk audit.  They told us that we had to clear our desks of every extraneous documents.  In my case, I lost over 14 years of training materials and binders that I used for unique cases that helped me do my job effectively.

Management refused to give us 1 minute of deductible time away from case production to sort through our documents.  We were extremely anxious about what would happen if management determined that we were not in compliance.  So we did the only thing we could do, clear our desks of all training documents and materials.

High production quotas are no excuse for possible improper document shredding.  However, more realistic quotas and better training will reduce the problems and enhance the overall effectiveness of the ROs.  

When I served on the group investigating the Tailhook incident almost 20 years, we made the recommendation that manager training was essential to stopping that improper behavior.  When VBA does provide training at the RO level, the quality is poor, because so many of the trainers are inexperienced and not subject matter experts.

I recommend that more training of the file clerks and the claims examiners, in the mail room who are the first in line to receive veterans' documents in evidence.  They work under constant production pressures.  Mistakes will continue to be made if the training does not get better.

The employees in my office have not been given any page, stamps, cover sheets, or other tools for discarding documents more quickly.  We have to mark every piece of paper that we discard with our initials and the reasons for shredding it. 

The shredding problem has also resulted in a large number of unfair terminations and disciplinary actions.  I am currently appealing the reprimand of a young lady who was accused of unintentionally shredding a veteran's original document.  Even though the evidence was weak, management told us that this is a very high visibility case, so they must go forward with the reprimand. 

We are very pleased that Congress has provided VBA with the funds to hire thousands of new veterans to address this backlog.  But it is heartbreaking and frustrating to see so many new hires fired during their probationary period. 

Finally, much of the problems of lost and tampered files could be solved by VBA going paperless.  There are so many Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans who need jobs and would be proud to join the VBA workforce to do the document scanning and other work to help VBA go paperless.

Thank you.

[The prepared statement of Ms. Moore appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Ms. Moore.  Thank you for your service as well as your service to our veterans.

Ms. MOORE.  Thank you.

Mr. HALL.  Thanks to all of our panelists for your service and for your service to our veterans. 

Let me just start off.  My first question is for Mr. Baker.  In general what does a service officer do when he or she cannot locate a claim folder or they suspect a file has been tampered with by the VA?

Mr. BAKER.  Well as a national service officer (NSO) in a field office, we have about 250 plus NSOs that man every Regional Office in the country.  Our ability is limited.  Once we believe something is missing, and we can't confirm, for example, an entire claims folder is missing.  We need the VA to help us do that.  But if it has been confirmed that a claims folder in its entirety is missing, we have no choice at that point but to rely on VA to start the rebuilding procedure for that folder.  Now some of that will come from the service organizations, some of it will come from the clamant.  They will go out to various centers, wherever that person sought medical treatment, and try to rebuild as much of that claims folder as possible.  It is a difficult process, because some of the records are simply irretrievable, some of them are irreplaceable. 

If we feel—now that is a missing claims file.  If we feel evidence is missing that maybe we have submitted, we have a tracking system in our case management program that tells us everything we have done for a particular claimant.  And we can pull up submittal letters, which are attached to medical evidence that we have copies of.  We can take it to VA.  And at least if we can get that particular claimant to come back up with the evidence, unfortunately sometimes they have to come back up with it again, we can show by our records that we did submit it to the VA.  And, you know, the VA can't then say that they never got the evidence.  We can prove that they got the evidence.  And as far as effective date purposes or a few other things, you know, that kind of—that kind of partnership can come together for a good outcome. 

But if, you know, almost half or maybe more than half of the claimants out there are not represented, you wouldn't get that kind of benefit.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Baker.  One more question for you.  In your testimony you categorized incidents with shredding as "unlawful destruction" and suggested that there be fines or imprisonment for guilty employees. 

Are you suggesting that title 38 should be amended?  What about managers who do not comport with VA regulations that are complicit in improperly handling documents?

Mr. BAKER.  I don't want to—I don't want my recommendation to be taken too much out of context.  I mean, if it is found that somebody has illegally destroyed records, I believe that they should be prosecuted under title 18. 

Right now there are many provisions in title 38 that require VA to prosecute a veteran, a veterans' representative, a VA employee if they fraudulent—commit fraud against the government to obtain benefits.  But there is nothing in title 38 that mandates VA prosecute a VA employee if they commit fraud against a claimant to withhold benefits.

Mr. HALL.  Right.  So in other words, if there is prosecution or punishment of some kind for overpaying or paying unnecessarily then there also should be balance.  And there should be similar—

Mr. BAKER.  There should be balance.

Mr. HALL [continuing].  —sanctions for not paying.

Mr. BAKER.  And that is not to say VA can't prosecute them under title 18 now.

Mr. HALL.  Right.

Mr. BAKER.  But various circumstances mandate that they prosecute other instances under title 18.

Mr. HALL.  Have you made your recommendation for imaging centers to the VA?

Mr. BAKER.  I have now. 

Mr. HALL.  Okay.  I think everybody here sort of echoes that recommendation. 

I want to ask Mr. Abrams.  It seems that you agreed that the work credit system currently in place incentivizes employees to take short cuts.  I love the Lucy and Ethel picture.  And I would also agree that measuring for quality and accuracy could improve the system.  How would you suggest that that be implemented and what about production?

Mr. ABRAMS.  Well, I think we should reward managers who are able to supervise people who do work well and do lots of work.  Once we get started on that track, people will be promoted who are good, who do work well, and the VA will have to accept that it will have to report numbers to Congress and to the public that show it takes longer to do a claim in the first instance than what they expect now.  It will be shorter over all.  The backlog will go down.  But it will take longer to do the claim right in the first instance. 

And that was why in my formal testimony I said we should give amnesty to the managers now, because the statistics that you are going to get, if they are honest, are going to shock you, just like you were shocked in the OIG report.  There are cases that are in drawers now that are going to have to come out.  And you are going to see old, old claims.  And that is going to have to get on the table in order to know where we are to get better. 

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Abrams.  I am sorry I have—I am running out of time here in this round.  But I want to ask Ms. Witt.  In your experience with the legislation that we passed last year creating the New Survivor Office at the VA, has Gold Star Wives called—asked the VA to call survivors when needing to retrieve funds, and if so what was the VA's response?

Ms. WITT.  We have not asked them to do that.  I think it would be an extremely good idea if they did. 

Mr. HALL.  This is all a work in progress.  That legislation is fairly recent.  We have a new Secretary, and there will be new direction coming from the top leadership at the VA.  So I presume that these things should start to happen and the office is to be fully staffed.  And we will see changes.  But that would be probably a wise thing to do.

Ms. WITT.  We have already seen significant progress from the VA office.

Mr. HALL.  Ms. Moore, does the AFGE train employees in how to report unethical or improper document handling if they witness it in the field?

Ms. MOORE.  Yes, sir, absolutely.  We have a training program in place now that does train the AFGE leadership to report mishandling of documents and shredding, illegal shredding. 

Mr. HALL.  What process is used to determine if an employee has intentionally engaged in that behavior?

Ms. MOORE.  Well, actually what happens is that it is reported to the managers, management, upper-level management when it is brought to AFGE's attention, we have to go through management.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you very much.  I would like to recognize Mr. Mitchell, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

Mr. MITCHELL.  Thank you.  Mr. Baker, in her testimony the VA's Assistant Inspector General for Audit tells us the so called mail amnesties in Detroit and New York uncovered 16,000 pieces of mail and other documents that had not been processed.

I have a three-part question.  Had you ever heard of these mail amnesties for one?  And secondly, how often do veterans tell you that they have submitted paperwork to the VA, and that they had to resubmit the same paperwork?  And third, how well does the VA deal with these situations?

Mr. BAKER.  I have never heard of the amnesty until now.  Hearing it when you mentioned it earlier was the first time.  I was shocked to hear that there were that many that turned up in the amnesty.  Again, I hadn't heard that.  So I will say that that is a first for this type of situation. 

Mr. MITCHELL.  The second part of that question is how often do veterans tell you that they have to submit—when they submit paperwork, they have to resubmit it for the same thing?

Mr. BAKER.  I spent a number of years in the field at various locations throughout the country.  And I would probably hear it weekly.  That is not to say it was always—a lot of times it was found later.  I mean, if you have ever been to, and I am not saying you haven't, some of the Regional Offices out there, you know, the paperwork piles are tremendous.  So in realizing what they have to work with, it—you know, it is very believable that you would lose a few documents a week out of thousands that are handled.  But a lot of them eventually turn up.

Mr. MITCHELL.  And the third part of that question is how well does the VA deal with those situations?

Mr. BAKER.  When the documents are found, I think the VA deals pretty good with them.  A lot of times they have already been received by VA, so we can prove when VA—you know, VA dated them. 

It is when they are not found.  And those records are not replaceable.  At those points a lot of problems are created for the claimant.  Most of the time when you lose records that are irreplaceable, if it is the one piece of proof that a claimant needed, you see the benefit get denied.  But you don't know what that evidence was.  You don't know what it said, you know, if you can't come up with it.  A lot of times it is just—it is too bad for the claimant.  And that is a very unfortunate situation in many of those.

Does that answer your question?

Mr. MITCHELL.  Another question is you indicate in your testimony that you are aware of the document handling procedures that are now in place.  Do you believe this new procedure is sufficient to protect our veteran's claims until the IT solution is complete, or do you have some concerns about the potential mishandling of records?

Mr. BAKER.  I think it is sufficient.  I don't want to see it have to go on on a long-term basis, because I think it is a form of micromanagement in overdrive.  I mean, and I say that only because it is very labor intensive.  That work could be used other places to help speed up the claims process. 

So I would like to see the IT get in place as fast as possible, so that VA doesn't require to have those—isn't required to have those types of positions to oversee everybody.  There are a lot of VA employees that do their job very well that don't shred documents that are now under the gun because of this. 

Mr. MITCHELL.  Thank you.  Ms. Witt, as you know, the IT-focused system takes time to set up.  And the VA is working towards this paperless system right now.  But in the meantime, do you have any suggestions of how the VA should proceed to ensure that claims and documents are properly handled and processed?

Ms. WITT.  My only idea would be that they log each one in and give it a number so that they could track it.  But if you are going to go totally manual system, they would have to number them and record them in a PC so that they could track whether they received them or not.  Put a rubber band around them.  Make sure they stay together. 

I am a retired computer programmer.  I come up with the ways to do it on the computer, you know, to automate it.  I don't really think they have a hope of ever straightening out the backlog unless it is automated.

Mr. MITCHELL.  I thank you.  And I yield back the balance of my time.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.

Ranking Member Roe.

Mr. ROE.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

Mr. Baker, it is a monumental undertaking to do all this scanning.  We just took a 70 doctor practice and 350 employees.  And it almost drove us crazy.  So this is a huge undertaking.  But I totally agree it is absolutely mandatory just from what I have heard here today.  There is no way in the world you can keep up with all this paper.  It can't be done. 

And what—Ms. Witt, what you have said, I have heard over and over again.  We have a large VA hospital in my district.  And I hear it practically every week, someone is complaining.  How many of these scanning centers would you think?  Are you a little concerned about—we scanned it in various different sites.  And our practice is divided, so we used various sites.  That would seem to be a smarter thing to set up across the country instead of going to a central point.

Ms. WITT.  I would think that you would need one for each Regional Office where they are processed.  And then—

Mr. HALL.  Ms. Witt, excuse me, could you speak closer to the microphone?  Pull the microphone down there a little bit if you would.

Ms. WITT.  I would think that you would need a scanning place in each individual office that processes claims.  And I think that is the Regional Offices.  Then those could be put into a common database of the whole VA, the records of the scanning, so that they could be retrieved.

Mr. ROE.  Mr. Baker, do you approve, agree?

Mr. BAKER.  I agree with you, sir.  I don't think one is the proper solution.  I mean, I could imagine the size of something like that would have to be. 

At the same time, I would have to disagree with Ms. Witt.  I wouldn't want to see them in every single VA Regional Office, because it is just too hard to manage.  I know Lockheed did this for the Social Security Administration.  They have a 5-year contract.  I am not suggesting VA use a contract.  I think it would be better for them to do it with their own people.  But if you had centers, regional centers, such as the Social Security Administration currently has, they could be—every piece of mail could be managed centrally.  The end user could still look at the evidence once it is electronically recorded into an electronic claims file.  It could be sent anywhere. 

Now there is probably a lot of ways to do this.  I am not an IT specialist.  But I don't think it should be one.  I think it should be regional.  And there may be much better ideas out there than mine.

Mr. ROE.  One of the things that, Mr. Abrams, you mentioned, and I did see that Lucy show, that was good, but that was a comedy show.  And the care of our veterans is not.  And so we can do better.  And I want to brag on our VA.  We are so blessed to have the VA system.  I, as a veteran, appreciate the quality care that we get at the VA.  And we certainly forget, Ms. Moore, sometimes all the literally millions of claims you do right.  But we need to strive to do better.  And I would argue, Mr. Abrams, just your comment briefly, I certainly found this out.  It is a lot better and quicker to do it right the first time than to redo it 15 times.  I mean, first of all, what you are doing is incredibly labor intensive.  It is a one-on-one. 

When somebody in my district office calls the VA system, it is one person working with another person.  And if there is a mistake made, you have just compounded that.  And another mistake and it takes—I think that is what adds a lot of the time.  I think you are absolutely dead on right is to do it right the first time.  Comment?

Mr. ABRAMS.  Yes.  And we have been saying that—I have been saying that since 1985 when I was working for the VA.  And I think that got me out.  But if we do it right, the managers and the workers have to be encouraged with a system that rewards them for doing it right.  Right now they are rewarded, in our opinion, for doing it fast. 

So if you hold back the work credit until the appeal period is over, then people are going to say if we do it right, then we don't have to worry about that.  If they appeal, we don't have any more to do.  We can move this case on.  How many times does a case go to the board where the board sends it back for extra evidence?  Where a Decision Review Officer says they didn't develop the claim in the right way.  These things can be stopped if people are incentivized to go do it right.

Mr. ROE.  And I think just one last time.  This is a massive undertaking.  I can tell you just from what we did in our medical practice, it was a huge undertaking.  This is going to have to—there is going to be a learning curve.  And there is going to be a time where it will probably actually slow things down as you scan all this data in.  But, it is going to require some patience.  But in having said that, it has to be done. 

Thank you.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Roe. 

And I would just comment that we did pass a bill last year.  It was signed into law by President Bush, P.L. 110-389.  It was unanimously supported in both the House and Senate, which among other things requires review of the work credit system.  It, unfortunately, doesn't happen just because we passed the bill.  It has to be implemented and planned.  And with the new Administration getting up to speed, I hope we will see some progress, and all of these ideas that we are talking about will be looked at.

Mrs. Halvorson, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  You know, it is a shame one of the biggest casualties here is trust and faith in our VA.  And I know we work every single day to reinstate that trust and faith. 

And Mrs. Moore, I just want to commend you, because it is true, we focus on some—the few things that go wrong.  Just as what we go through, people want to point out the bad instead of talking about the good.  I want to commend you on what you do and all the good things.

The question I have though is I know from hearing from my constituents, and even when I served in the State Legislature, people still came to me with VA issues.  But is it—I know that it is a lack of maybe enough working people.  I mean, do you have—you are understaffed in many cases.  Is that true?

Ms. MOORE.  Yes, we are currently understaffed.  But I think that if we had proper training, if the focus was on training, the employees that we have in place and getting them the information that is needed, we would overall be better.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  And why are you lacking the training?

Ms. MOORE.  Well, I mean, the training is there.  It is just that the trainers are inexperienced.  They are just entering the VA system.  They are not, in my opinion, subject matter experts. 

Just like was mentioned on this Committee that if you produce cases quickly, you are promoted.  It is production.  It is the production line.  So—

Mrs. HALVORSON.  So then we are taking people's lives and trying to skip through them quickly so that people are promoted within their jobs instead of taking care of our veterans.

Ms. MOORE [continuing].  that is what I am seeing at the Regional Office at—

Mrs. HALVORSON.  And who makes those decisions?

Ms. MOORE [continuing].  top management.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Okay.  Then we also hear from—I hear from constituents also that their cases are denied, because it is easier to deny a case than to deal with it.  Is that going on? 

Ms. MOORE.  I see some of that going on, yes. 

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Does anybody else care to talk about that issue?

Mr. ABRAMS.  Yes.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Mr. Abrams?

Mr. ABRAMS.  Yes.  It is much easier to get work credit when a claim comes in, and you need to get a couple medical opinions, and you need to go out for lay evidence, and you need to give the veteran time to get things to prove certain things than it is to skip that, deny the claim, and say, as we have heard all over—we have been to over 40 ROs.  I worked in the VA for almost 20 years.  Let the Board of Veterans' Appeals decide.  And so people appeal. 

If the ROs were told you have to develop this, because we get burned if the claim goes on and on and on, they wouldn't do that.  They would go get that crucial evidence.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  So instead—

Mr. ABRAMS.  They would—

Mrs. HALVORSON [continuing].  —we now have to help our constituents who are constantly having to appeal.  So these are people that have served our country.  They have done everything right.  And now we expect them to constantly appeal so they get taken care of, because people who are working in the offices find it is easier to get themselves promoted if they deny our people who have served their country benefits.

Mr. ABRAMS.  You can look at the remand and reversal rates at the Board of Veterans' Appeals and see they are much too high.  And then you can look at what happens at the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims where they have over a 50-percent remand reversal rate.  It is the highest rate of any appellate court.  And this is—this is to be a non-adversarial system where the VA is obligated to help people get evidence to win their claims. 

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Well, to me this is very adversarial.  And I think we need to do a better job taking care of our veterans.  And I am hoping that I can be of assistance in any way to make sure that we can do something to not only train the people who are dealing with these claims, but to do something about taking care of the people, because now it has almost become automatic that people are appealing their cases, which now makes you have to deal with the person at least twice instead of once when you could have just taken care of it right away.  So I am hoping that I can be a big part of maybe helping somehow deal with fixing something that to me just doesn't make sense.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Halvorson. 

Mrs. Kirkpatrick, you are recognized for 5 minutes.

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

My question is for Ms. Moore.  Regarding shredding, I am glad to hear that AFGE feels to strongly that improper shredding is totally unacceptable.  And that you feel that making veterans wait over a 6-month period for their claims to be processed is also unacceptable.

You state that the VBA could have struck a better balance if VBA had consulted with their front-line employees prior to implementing its shredding policy.  What advice would you give VBA to strike a better balance in its shredding policy?

Ms. MOORE.  The consultation and the advice from the employees that actually do the work.  We are the front-line employees.  We do the work.  We are on the floor.  We see the claims that are processed.  We see the evidence that comes through the mail room. 

I think that if VBA top management would just sit down at the table and communicate with the employees and solicit our input, we could be a resounding resource.  But that is not happening.  We want to help.  We want to be there, because we are veterans serving other veterans.  So we feel left out.

But I think that if they solicit—I am urging the Committee to have top VBA to solicit the input from the employees, the front-line employees, that actually do the work.

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  And just to follow up on that, do you think there have to be safeguards put in place so that those employees don't feel inhibited during that process, because they are going to be talking to their supervisors, their managers?

Ms. MOORE.  Well, you know, I think that if VBA would have a partnership with the employees and their representatives, that would make it so much better.  But VBA does not want to have the partnership with AFGE.  AFGE represents the employees.  We are there for the interests of the employees as well as the veterans.  So we have a twofold job here. 

And my job is extremely difficult, because I am the Vice President of the American Federation of Government Employees at Winston-Salem.  So not only do I process claims, but I also represent employees.  So I think we can—we can strike an equal balance here if we work together.  We need to work together.

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  So there is a way to strike sort of a win-win between

Ms. MOORE.  I think so.

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK [continuing].  —employees and management?

Ms. MOORE.  I really do.  I really do believe that from the bottom of my heart. 

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  Thank you.  I yield back my time.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. 

Mr. Walz, you are now recognized.

Mr. WALZ.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and thank you to each of our witnesses.  One thing I really appreciate is your desire and your hard work to truly solve this.  Some of you have been fighting this for decades.  And you haven't lost the desire to get it right.  You are still continuing to be there. 

But I have to tell you it gets hard to hear these.  All of us have been there.  And we continue to hear this.  We continue to hear the problems.  We have got to get it right.  The momentum is there to do that.  But we have to be smart about this. 

So there are a couple of things I want to address.  I think Dr. Roe is bringing up a really important point.  This is going to be monumental in what it is going to take to do it. 

And it is something that I—spending 24 years in uniform in watching these things happen.  And I have been there when the DoD has lost stuff.  I don't know how many of us here receive nine extra shots that you knew you had.  But there was no record of it.  And every time I am telling them, "Well, I am the guy who was there signing off," that didn't matter. 

We have got tools now to be able to get there.  We have got computers, and we have got electronic records.  And I am convinced that, yes, we have got to get this claim that is there.  We have got to take away exactly the things you are focusing on. 

But I think we have to back up a step further and get to the systemic problem here, which is that seamless transition issue.  That record should be in far better shape when that individual, that warrior, leaves the DoD and gets into the VA system.  We end up trying to track back records into the other side of the house on DoD.  And it becomes a dang nightmare. 

And that I think is the first step.  I think it sets the tone for streamlining this process.  It puts things in.  It gets us electronic—from the electronic medical record (EMR) to the electronic enlistment record and everything else that moves with this person.  DoD has got to start seeing themselves as not just the war fighters.  They can't just sign off on this piece of equipment that was a warrior.  And they go into the VA.  That is where a lot of our problems are starting.

So I am going to ask you, Mr. Baker.  And it got touched upon.  How do we do this?  How do we front load this thing?  And maybe, you know, we have got to get to the computer experts.  And we will ask the VA in all of that.  But do you agree this is part of the issue that if we can front load this, getting the records compiled in the right place, having that documentation there, that that should start to clear the backlog?

Mr. BAKER.  It absolutely would front load it in a lot of good ways.  And we have had a lot of different hearings in both the House and the Senate on the claims process and the appeals process. 

And personally I look at the whole picture from start to finish in various sections.  You can't look at it in one.  Everybody is different, whether you are a Vietnam vet or a vet just getting out of service. 

And how you—how do you process that claim when evidence is all over the country—

Mr. WALZ.  That is right.

Mr. BAKER [continuing].  —is different in every situation.  So I think what you are talking about is one segment from military to veteran status.  If that were seamless, than that segment is then almost taken care of.  You don't have to go back and trace records down somewhere down the road.  So you are right.  If you could do that, you have just made a monumental step forward. 

At the same time, now I know the BDD system, the Benefits Delivery at Discharge, has recently gone paperless.  Now I don't know to the extent that that is up and running.  That for some of those veterans is an answer if they go through the BDD process.  But a lot of them don't.

Mr. WALZ.  Yeah.

Mr. BAKER.  So that kind of takes up for a difference in the DoD system versus VA system.  But it doesn't solve the problem that is between those two systems.  So absolutely—

Mr. WALZ.  Okay.

Mr. BAKER [continuing].  —it worked out 100 percent.

Mr. WALZ.  Okay.  And I would—Ms. Witt, this issue on survivor's benefits, the Ranking Member Buyer has got a piece of legislation I think he is going to roll out pretty soon to start addressing some of these issues.  We know there are problems in that DIC.  We know that there are things that need to be addressed.  And we will start to get there.

My last question, Master Sergeant Moore, again, thank you for your service.  And, again—and Mr. Lamborn mentioned it and other Members here is that we are absolutely committed to the men and women in the VA.  They are veterans for the most part, a large number of them. 

But we do have problems.  We have got some cultural issues there.  And I know this is somewhat subjective.  But after this story came out about the shredding, it seemed to me you might be kind of intimating a little bit.  Has the pressure fallen heavily on the processors, and to find scapegoats, and releasing people?  Do you kind of feel that is happening?  It is falling heavily on you and—

Ms. MOORE.  I know that to be happening.  VBA was more or less caught with this problem.  And in order to rectify it or to provide answers to this Committee or whatever Committee, they had to find evidence of whomever was committing these acts.  And there were I am sure at some ROs people doing this.  But at other ROs, the instance that—I don't think—I think we—Winston-Salem we didn't have a lot of incidents.  But the pressure is there. 

And you have to now—you have to initial every piece of paper that you get in a veteran's file, put it in a red folder, give it to your supervisor.  Then your supervisor has to review it and determine if it is shreddable.  I am paid $75,000 a year.  And I think I can make that decision.

Mr. WALZ.  Do you think that those procedures have done anything to stop the person who was going to destroy one for a work product issue?

Ms. MOORE.  I don't see where it is really helping.  I really don't.

Mr. WALZ.  Okay.  Well, I appreciate your candor.  Thank you.  I yield back, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Walz.  You just asked my last question.  And you just answered it, Ms. Moore. 

So I want to thank you.  I want to note that both Mr. Baker and Mr. Walz talked about the two tracks, the new veterans who are separating now from service and have a DoD electronic health record that can be handed off.  That, obviously, is the best world.  Records are going to be much easier to deal with if you are starting out with an electronic record. 

Then there are the older veterans who have operated under a system in which the health records are printed out, and have rubber bands around them, and sticky Post-it notes put on them, and get passed from one desk to another.  Those will need to be scanned or date entered and in certain instances character recognition software run. 

In the cases where a doctor has scribbled in the margin, if it is like my doctor, I don't know that the character recognition software would work.  But nonetheless, we are trying, as you know, to make this happen. 

We appreciate your testimony and your input.  Thank you for your testimony and, again, for your service.  The first panel is now excused.

Now we would ask our second panel to join us.  Ms. Belinda Finn, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing at the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; accompanied by Mr. James O'Neill, Assistant Inspector General for Investigations at the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Welcome to both of you.  Make yourselves comfortable.  Your full statement is entered in the record, so feel free to deviate from it, or shorten it, or whatever you choose to do.

Ms. Finn, you are recognized for 5 minutes.

STATEMENT OF BELINDA J. FINN, ASSISTANT INSPECTOR GENERAL FOR AUDITING, OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS; ACCOMPANIED BY JAMES J. O'NEILL, ASSISTANT INSPECTOR GENERAL FOR INVESTIGATIONS, OFFICE OF INSPECTOR GENERAL, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

Ms. FINN.  Thank you very much.  Chairman Hall, Chairman Mitchell, Members of the Subcommittees, thank you very much for having us here today.

We are going to discuss issues affecting the handling and processing of veterans' compensation claims.  My colleague from the OIG is with me today, Mr. James J. O'Neill.  He is the Assistant Inspector General for Investigations. 

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office.  At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents.  We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

On learning about this issue, the Under Secretary for Benefits immediately directed every Regional Office to suspend document shredding and inventory the contents of the shred bins.  That search found 474 claim-related documents at 41 Regional Offices. 

During this time, the Office of Investigations investigated the circumstances surrounding every instance where a document could be traced back to an individual.  The results of our investigative efforts are outlined in our written statement for the record.

Neither we, nor VBA, can determine with any accuracy how long documents may have been discarded or how many documents were lost.  In fact, I note that the shred bins we looked in had been emptied fairly recently and contained only about 14 days worth of documents. 

At the time of our audit, VBA did not have a policy governing what documents could be placed in shred bins and no review checks to determine if documents were appropriate for shredding.  Following this disclosure, in November, VBA issued sweeping new procedures for the maintenance, review, and appropriate destruction of hard copy documents.  We will be reviewing the effectiveness of those controls during our future visits to VBA offices.

In October 2008, we began another review at the request of Congressman Steve Buyer to evaluate the accuracy of compensation and pension claim receipt dates.  The impetus for this work was a VBA report that management at New York had directed staff to intentionally record false claim receipt dates.  This was done to improve their reported claim processing time. 

In reporting this, VBA assured everyone that the errors did not affect payments to veterans or beneficiaries.  To determine if this issue was a problem elsewhere, we evaluated over 1,500 claims from the Albuquerque, Boston, San Diego, and Winston-Salem Regional Offices. 

We found the majority of the claim receipt dates were accurate.  A small percentage of claims, however, had no documentation in the claim file to support the date that had been recorded.  Most importantly, we were able to confirm that these incorrect claim receipt dates did not cause any harm to veterans or beneficiaries, because VBA personnel verified the amount and date of each payment before authorizing payments.  Further, we found in only one instance that any evidence existed that this was an intentional act.

We recommended that VBA take actions.  And they have accepted our recommendations.

During 2008, my office has visited about 16 regional VBA offices.  In addition to the two reviews discussed here, we are conducting audits or reviews on VBAs quality assurance programs, its management controls over large retroactive payments, and VBA systems to track and control records.

We will be glad to provide our reports on each of these reviews after we complete our work.

In addition to our national reviews, we are beginning an inspection program to evaluate operational issues at specific Regional Offices.  We will start our work this month and plan to cover all 57 offices within 5 years. 

Mr. Chairmen, thank you, again, for the opportunity to testify and for your continued support of the Office of Inspector General.  Mr. O'Neill and I would be pleased to answer any questions at this time.

[The prepared statement of Ms. Finn appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Ms. Finn.  I would start by asking is there a systemic document handling problem within the VA—VBA, or is this—would you say New York was systemic to management there, and that the rest of it is within the level of tolerance that one would attribute to mistakes, or accidental mishandling?

Ms. FINN.  That was our conclusion for the four offices that we visited and reviewed.  New York was unique in that management had directed the incorrect dates.  And there was a systemic pattern of it.  We did not find, obviously, any evidence of that in other offices. 

Further, the pattern of the claim dates was different in New York.  Over 50 percent of the dates were inaccurate.  And, most of the inaccurate dates after the claim was actually established to make the processing time look better.

In the other offices we saw inaccurate dates on both sides, either before or after the date.  And we felt this was much more indicative of unintentional error.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you.  What do you think of the VA's response to the problems with shredding and its new policies?  Had the OIG ever audited mail rooms or shredder bins before to your knowledge, and what were those results?

Ms. FINN.  To my knowledge, we had not conducted any audits or reviews of mail rooms or shred bins before.  I will caveat that by saying I have only been with the VA OIG for about two years.  But I think I would have heard if we had done earlier reviews. 

VBA took very swift action.  And they established sweeping policies.  I think these policies are a big step in the right direction to have a policy and a procedure where none existed before.

Mr. HALL.  I am glad to hear that the Office of Inspector General is creating a Benefits Inspection Division and will be doing evaluations at the 57 Regional Offices.  What will be the primary focus of these inspections, and will there be a standardized protocol?

Ms. FINN.  Yes.  We will be using a standardized protocol.  The focus will be to evaluate the accuracy of claims processing and action affecting claims processing.  We will be evaluating a wide range of issues. 

We are still developing all of those protocols to make sure we have the most effective use of our time.  But we will be issuing standard reports on each visit.  And we plan to issue them about 60 days from the start of our work, so it will be a fairly quick review.

Mr. HALL.  And is a 4-year cycle for inspections going to be efficient enough to catch systemic problems?

Ms. FINN.  It is the schedule we can currently handle with our resources.  As to whether or not it will get around to every office quick enough is—I think remains to be seen.

Mr. HALL.  Do you need more resources to do this in a timely fashion? 

Ms. FINN.  We would need to dedicate more resources, yes, in order to visit the offices and complete the cycle quicker.

Mr. HALL.  So I guess we talk to Secretary Shinseki and ask him if he can move them from somewhere else or whether we in Congress need to allocate more funds.  Do you know about how much more funding would be necessary for you to have sufficient staff to do these inspections?

Ms. FINN.  Our current resource limit and level for this effort will be ten professional staff.  And that will allow us to complete all 57 offices within about 5 years.

If we wanted to complete all offices within a 3-year cycle, then we would probably need to double the resources.

Mr. HALL.  Okay.  If you would submit to us at your earliest convenience a written summary of what you think you would need to be able to do that, I would appreciate it.

Ms. FINN.  Yes, sir.

[The information was provided in a follow-up letter from Hon. George Opfer, Inspector General, U.S Department of Veterans Affairs, dated March 26, 2009, which appears in the Appendix. ]

Mr. HALL.  I will now recognize Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. MITCHELL.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

Ms. Finn, you talked about, at least in your written testimony, about the amnesties that occurred in Detroit.  And you uncovered 16,000 pieces of mail and other documents that had been processed.  Did you come across amnesties in any other offices, or is this just in one particular place?  And what do these amnesties tell you or indicate to you?

Ms. FINN.  At the risk of sounding like a popular book, I will say that everything we know about amnesty we learned from VBA.  We did not actually witness or observe any of the amnesties.  So we have information from VBA about the 16,000 documents and how effective the amnesty was.  But I really don't have any firsthand information.

[The information from the VA OIG is included in the response to Question #5 in the Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record, which appears in the Appendix. ]

Mr. MITCHELL.  Do you think that as a result of there being an amnesty, that, obviously, management knew that something was wrong.  That not all these claims were being processed.  That is the reason they had an amnesty.  Otherwise they wouldn't need one. 

Ms. FINN.  Yes, I think definitely management realized that there was a need for an amnesty and that documents or mail that was not being processed that could be hidden or lost somewhere in the RO.  And that is why they went with the amnesty.  I think it is similar to the library that has an amnesty program for your overdue books. 

Mr. MITCHELL.  Do you have any indication of how many amnesties they have?  Is it one every so many months, years, or anybody else have them?

Ms. FINN.  I believe we heard that two out of four of the area offices that we visited knew of amnesties or had had amnesties.  But I really don't have any detailed information.

Mr. MITCHELL.  Do you believe that the misdating and the shredding that was discussed was the result of improper training or supervision or the result of widespread culture in the VA that tolerated or maybe even encouraged employees to behave in this way?

Ms. FINN.  We have not done any specific audits or reviews to evaluate the training on this issue.  And we have noted that the policies and procedures before October were geared mainly towards ensuring the privacy of veteran's information and really did not cover shredding or placing documents in a drawer or anything like that.

In my experience, I have often seen that measurement systems or work measurement systems have unintended consequences.  And that people could take an unaccepted shortcut to achieve a metric.

Mr. MITCHELL.  Thank you.  And I yield back the balance of my time.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Mitchell.

Mr. Roe, you are now recognized for 5 minutes.

Mr. ROE.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  Just a comment or two and then a question.  If one veteran falls through the crack it is one too many, because that veteran is only interested in what is going to happen to me, not the other thousands we have got right.  So that is why we have got to get them as close to 100 percent as we can. 

And if we don't—I guess maybe I always understood who I worked for as a doctor.  I always worked for my patient.  There would be no need to have a VA if we didn't have veterans, so they are who we work for.  And so we should—it is not the other way around. 

Sometimes I think institutions get confused, hospitals do.  And I think we need to think about that from the top down is that our idea is we serve these veterans.  They served us.  And now we serve them. 

Just out of curiosity, I know, Ms. Finn, and you all probably have done this, but you have only been there 2 years, maybe Mr. O'Neill should answer it, but why hasn't the OIG done regular RO inspections before now or have you done them before now?

Ms. FINN.  Actually I can answer that.  We were doing combined assessment reviews of the Regional Offices for a number of years.  We stopped them in 2006 in the Office of Audit so that we could focus our attention on national issues affecting VBA operations.  And we believe those reviews have been very effective at identifying issues and the need for change.

The impetus for the inspection program is coming actually from the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.  And it was part of our appropriation and our marching orders for next year. 

Mr. ROE.  I think you speak again why we need to get to a paperless system to be able to manage this information.  It would make your job much easier if you had a computerized system where you could do your work much easier and probably more efficient with fewer people.

Just a question, and you may or may not have this answer here.  But I would like to know how many people were terminated, or moved, or were they actually terminated that deliberately shredded these documents?  I find that just incomprehensible that you would just shred documents so you didn't have to do something.

Ms. FINN.  I do know that VBA terminated or took administrative action against a number of people.  I don't have the exact number.  And I am sure they will be able to address that.

Mr. ROE.  Terminated means gone though, right?

Ms. FINN.  Yes, it does.

Mr. ROE.  Not moved somewhere else.

Ms. FINN.  Generally terminated means having left Federal service.

Mr. ROE.  Okay.  Well that is—because sometimes it can mean being moved somewhere else and continuing your poor work. 

I do appreciate what you do, because anything that I did as a physician, you may be thinking you are doing things real well until you have someone independently come in, audit that situation, and find out, hey, we are not doing nearly as good a job as I thought I was.

So thank you for what you are doing to keep this information flowing our way.  And I yield back my time.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Roe.  Mrs. Halvorson?

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I have just a real short one.  In the panel before you, we were talking about the fact that there was not enough training.  And that the trainers weren't trained well enough to do the training.  Is this a problem and is this widespread?  Could you maybe give us a little insight, or is it like not under your purview? 

Ms. FINN.  I wish I could.  It would be under our purview.  We just have not done any recent work in that area to evaluate the training program.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Mr. O'Neill, maybe?

Mr. O'NEILL.  No, I wouldn't be able to comment on it.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Okay.

Mr. O'NEILL.  I am responsible for the oversight of—

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Sure.

Mr. O'NEILL [continuing].  —criminal investigations.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Great, okay. I completely understand.  Thank you.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I yield back.

Mr. HALL.  Mrs. Kirkpatrick?

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  My question is for Ms. Finn.  In my law practice I helped veterans put together claims and also widows submit their claims.  And, you know, I am just wondering if we need to look at the type of documentation we are asking them to submit for redundancy and for things that may not make sense.  And I am just wondering in your review if you developed an opinion about that? 

For instance, certified copies of documents are very difficult to obtain.  Some places don't even certify documents.  And yet there is a requirement that you have to submit a certified document.  I mean, I just wonder if we really need to look at, you know, the type of documents, whether we need to have originals, whether copies would suffice, and what your opinion is of that?

Ms. FINN.  I have not looked at that.  I don't know that my office has.  I think you raise some interesting points.  And I would like to keep that in mind for some future reviews if you don't mind.

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK.  Thank you.  I yield back my time, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirkpatrick.

We would appreciate that at some future time if you respond to us for that question.  I want to thank you for your testimony, and for being here today, and the work you do on behalf of our veterans, and especially sorting through this particular problem. 

We have votes coming up at 3:00, around 3:30.  So we will excuse our second panel and move right along to our third panel, which consists of Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration at the Department of Veterans Affairs.  Mr. Walcoff is accompanied by Mr. Bradley Mayes, Director of Compensation and Pension Service of the VBA at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and Ms. Diana M. Rubens, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations of the Benefits Administration at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Mr. Walcoff, your full statement is entered for the record.  So you know how this goes.  You are now recognized for 5 minutes..

STATEMENT OF MICHAEL WALCOFF, DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR BENEFITS, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS; ACCOMPANIED BY BRADLEY MAYES, DIRECTOR, COMPENSATION AND PENSION SERVICE, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS; AND DIANA M. RUBENS, ASSOCIATE DEPUTY UNDER SECRETARY FOR FIELD OPERATIONS, VETERANS BENEFITS ADMINISTRATION, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS

Mr. WALCOFF.  Nice to see you again.

Mr. HALL.  Good to see you, sir.

Mr. WALCOFF.  Mr. Chairmen, Members of the Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the critical issue of proper handling of veterans' claims documents at VA Regional Offices, as well as issues involving proper date of claim for workload and performance tracking.

I am accompanied by Ms. Diana Rubens, Associate Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations, and Mr. Bradley Mayes, Director of the Compensation and Pension (C&P) Service.

As described in my written testimony in response to an OIG audit of mail handling procedures, VBA implemented a comprehensive plan of action to strengthen our policies and procedures to safeguard veterans' paper records.  This action plan implements tighter controls to protect veterans' applications and claims-related documents and ensures measures are in place to prevent future incidents of employees inappropriately discarding veterans' paperwork.

Working with veterans service organizations and Congressional staffs, we also developed special temporary claims handling procedures for veterans and claimants who assert VA did not process their claims because documents they previously submitted to VA to support their claim were shredded or otherwise improperly disposed. 

These special procedures for missing documents were officially released on November 14, 2008.  Since that date, we have received 335 requests from veterans or beneficiaries for review of their claims under the temporary procedures. 

I extend my sincere appreciation to the Senate and House Committee staffs and to the veteran service organizations for their input as we developed our action plan.  We will need your continued support as we work to ensure anyone potentially affected by this situation is assisted in filing a claim under these special procedures. 

As long as VBA continues to establish and store paper claims folders, we will be vulnerable to misplacement or misfiling of records, damaged records, and occasionally losing files.  VA has very clear and specific guidelines covering lost folders and rebuilding folders.

ROs are obligated to conduct an exhaustive search within their facilities before declaring a folder lost.  When these searches are completed and responses properly documented, the RO is responsible for rebuilding the folder.

The process of rebuilding folders includes replicating all evidence available to the VA.  If there is evidence pertinent to a pending claim that VA does not have, all development is redone to obtain that evidence. 

In addition, VA is required to notify the veteran and his or her representative of the lost folder and request any documents pertinent to the successful rebuilding of the folder.

If the original claims folder is subsequently located, the RO is obligated to combine the contents of both the claims folder and the rebuilt folder.

Control over all documentation is imperative.  And while we recognize that paperless is not a cure all, the use of technology will allow VA to maintain electronic documents, copies of documents, which cannot be shredded or lost.

Mr. Chairman, you also requested a status on the proper date stamping of documents at ROs.  During a routine site visit to the New York Regional Office, the C&P Service discovered 16 of 20 claims reviewed and an incorrect date of claim established in the electronic claims tracking program.  The New York RO was establishing claims using an unsupported date of claim, which resulted in erroneous timeliness on this data.

It is important to note that no veterans were impacted by these actions.  Subsequently, C&P staff members conducted an on-site review of a statistically valid sample of pending claims to assess data integrity at the New York Regional Office.  In addition, the Eastern Area Director convened an administrative investigative board to conduct a thorough and comprehensive investigation on site in New York.

Of the 335 additional claims reviewed, 56 percent had inaccurate dates of claim.  As a result of the findings of the New York Office, the Office of Field Operations and C&P Service conducted a full-scale claim—full date of claim review. 

The purpose of the review was to determine if ROs are using the proper date of claim.  And if not the reasons for using an incorrect date.  The review also required each RO to determine whether any use of an improper date of claim was to the advantage of the RO. 

Findings showed an average of 6.7 percent of cases nationwide were established with improper dates of claim.  However, the errors were unintentional and payment dates to veterans were not affected. 

The OIG also reviewed four Regional Offices to evaluate accuracy of benefit claim receipt dates.  The findings issued on February 27, 2009, showed a range of inaccuracy between three and ten percent among the four offices.  The OIG concluded that inaccurate dates were unintentional and did not cause any veteran to receive inaccurate or delayed benefit payments.

VBA implemented several measures in response to the findings of these reviews.  Each area office began conducting additional unannounced site visits at ROs under their jurisdiction.  Beginning in November 2008, the C&P Quality Assurance staff added date of claim accuracy reviews to all-STAR quality reviews.  The C&P site visit staff will continue to conduct date of claim reviews during routine site visits.  The information documented from both C&P and area office site visits is provided to leadership at the RO level as well as senior leadership in VBA. 

Based on the findings from ongoing date of claim reviews, VBA will continue to provide training, guidance, and reminders to the field of the importance of proper date of claim.

Finally, I would like to mention changes to month-of-death payment processing.  Due to problems implementing a change of law, some surviving spouses did not receive the veterans' compensation or pension benefit for the month of death.  And I have heard this referred to as a computer glitch.  And I want to make it clear that it was not a computer glitch.  This was an improper interpretation of the law by us. 

Over 10,000 surviving spouses have been identified so far.  And payments to those spouses have been made.  Procedures are being revised to automatically issue the month-of-death benefit immediately on processing the notice of death where VA knows of a surviving spouse.  No application is required to make payment.  We expect to issue new procedures later this month.

Mr. Chairmen, I have worked for the VA for 35 years.  During that time, I worked with many dedicated employees who devoted their careers to serving veterans.  The events I discussed in this testimony, particularly the shredding of documents, go totally against the responsibilities we have as public servants. 

The veterans have lost trust in VA.  That loss of trust is understandable.  And winning back that trust will not be easy.  We are committed to doing whatever we can to accomplish this.

Mr. Chairmen, this concludes my statement.  I would be happy to answer any questions you or the Members of the Committee might have.

[The prepared statement of Mr. Walcoff appears in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Walcoff.  I appreciate you and your colleagues and all of those who work for the VA and your sincere wish and motivation to help our Nation's veterans. 

How well would you say the new shredding policy is working?  And have you conducted follow-up reviews?

Mr. WALCOFF.  The new policy was put in effect after every Regional Office certified that the training had been done.  That certification took place on December 31st of 2008.  We are planning after 90 days to review what has been found during all of these various reviews at Regional Offices.  And at that point, we will make a determination as to whether and how long the additional scrutiny that is being placed on all documents to be shredded needs to continue.

We feel that while these measures are very burdensome, as was testified to by earlier panels, it is necessary for us to do this, because we need to show veterans that we are able to—we are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that their paperwork is not being mishandled. 

And, you know, when we are confident that these procedures are working and that our employees are doing what they need to do and doing it correctly, then we will talk about whether it is time to ease back a little bit.  We are not going to go totally back.  We are going to feel it necessary that there has to be some extra look at documents before they are shredded.  But, you know, we would have to make a determination as to whether we want to continue what we are doing now.

Mr. HALL.  Would you care to comment on Ms. Moore's statement in our first panel that those who are doing the training aren't knowledgeable enough about the policy themselves?  If I understood her correctly, that is what I thought she said.

Mr. WALCOFF.  Yeah.  And I wasn't sure whether she was talking about the training specifically for the shredding or generally our training and claims adjudication.  And with all due respect to her, I would disagree with her statement. 

I believe that we do put, you know, our people that have a combination of technical knowledge, which is important.  But also they have to have the ability to teach.  And we look for that combination in the people that we use as instructors.  We do send them specifically to an instructor development class that takes place at our training academy in Baltimore with the idea of trying to come up with that combination of expertise plus skills in platform areas.

Mr. HALL.  In preparing for this hearing, staff was told that the primary way files are missing, that they go missing and disappear, is that they are lost in transit.  Have you reviewed how many files are lost in transit between offices and Medical Centers?  How is a file tracked?  What is the chain of responsibility?  And what about the custody of brokered claims?

Mr. WALCOFF.  I can tell you that in terms of lost files through sending them through the mail, it has—it has certainly happened.  I wouldn't say that that is the primary way that files are lost.  But I can tell you that it is something that we certainly have some concern about. 

We require that any files that are sent through the mail are sent through a system that has a tracking device.  In other words, you can't just take a C-file and drop it off in the mail and just send it regular mail.  It has to be using whatever form of delivery would allow us to be able to track the document if it comes up missing. 

Now that is not the cheapest way to send a file, frankly.  As a matter of fact it is a lot more expensive.  But we felt that that was needed in order to be able to locate missing files if they do not show up where they are supposed to show up.  So that is a precaution that we do take with the brokering.

And I will tell you that, you know, we keep hearing about paperless and electronic and how that is the answer to a lot of the problems.  And frankly, it is the answer to a lot of our problems, not all them, but a lot of them.  And certainly I can't wait until we get to the point where we can move files around without ever having to actually physically move anything.  That when we are in a paperless system, that if I want a file that starts in Des Moines to be done in Los Angeles, I can have people at both stations go into the electronic site and have access to that file rather than us having to physically mail a file.

Mr. HALL.  Yes.  I remember you testifying about that last year when we were passing legislation to start the process, which we hope to see adopted soon.

What are the consequences to employees when a file is lost while under their control, or for that matter, what are the consequences to managers?  How is their performance measured when folders or documents go missing from their  control?  And does it affect their bonuses?

Mr. WALCOFF.  I am going to let Diana, you may want to take that.  I will tell you that often when a document or a file disappears, it is not easy to figure out who had last custody of it.  And I think the OIG could probably testify to that.  When they went in and investigated, the documents that wound up where they shouldn't have been, they were only able to track back to a specific individual, a very, very small number of those pieces of paper.

So because of the process and the way we—the way things move around in our operation, it is often very difficult to be able to say exactly when and where and who was involved when the folder disappeared.  Certainly if we ever have any indication that an individual intentionally either lost, or shredded, or in any way mishandled a piece of paper or a file, serious action is taken. 

And I can tell you that the individuals who we were able to trace the shredding incident back to, have been terminated as was said.  And I do mean in this case that they were removed from their position in the government.

Mr. HALL.  According to Mr. Abrams on our first panel, the VA does not have the authority to establish dates for which to allow claimants a window to file claims without proper documentation.  Did you explore this with General Counsel prior to sending instructions to the field?

Mr. WALCOFF.  Do you want to take that?

Mr. MAYES.  Yes, we did, Mr. Chairman.  We consulted with General Counsel.  And we came up with the procedures that would allow us to accept an asserted claim.  And we felt that the Secretary did have authority to take those claims.  I know that was an unprecedented procedure that we put out there.  But I think we needed to do that, as Mr. Walcoff said, to begin to restore the faith and the confidence in VA.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mr. Mayes.  Before I turn it over to Dr. Roe, I will ask you, Mr. Walcoff, if you would respond to a number of questions we didn't get to and rather than ask you to wait while we are over there for voting for however long that is, we would like to follow up with you on the question of mail amnesty, in particular the comment today.  I would like your commitment to us that you will fully and expeditiously respond to information requests from staff on that.

Mr. WALCOFF.  Absolutely.

[Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record from VA appear in the Appendix.]

Mr. HALL.  Thank you.  Dr. Roe.

Mr. ROE.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  It was stated several times that—and also, Mr. Walcoff, thank you for 35 years of service to our veterans–-that no veteran was adversely affected.  And yet in your testimony you said they had lost trust, so all of us were adversely affected.  When you lose trust in the system, then when a veteran's claim doesn't get done, has mine been shredded.  And that is all we have is our word and trust.  That bond we have that we are going to do everything we can to adjudicate your problem, not the other thousands that are out there, but your problem.  You are the most important person in the world right now when you are that veteran. 

So I would argue we have got to gain their trust back, because I hear that.  And I would ask that same question, did my record get shredded if it wasn't, didn't get appropriately looked into?  So I would argue and certainly inadvertent dating is—I mean, I have written the third down when it was the fourth, everyone has done that.  But when you deliberately do something like these folks did, that is not ever acceptable.  So I would argue that is the case. 

And I think that just a statement and then your answer.  It seems to me that throughout the testimony we have heard today, it is clear that we need a paperless, electronic system.  And I completely agree with you.  It is still garbage in and garbage out.  I mean, when you do—have a system there, it won't solve all the problems.  Our EMR system created some problems.  And there will be some things you are not even expecting that are going to happen when you go to this system. 

And I will assure—I am going to tell you right you are going to hear a lot of complaining when you go to this system.  It is going to be difficult, and hard, and will take some time to do.  It is going to take a lot of patience to do.  But I support that.  I think you have to do it.  And I will support that.

I want to make it clear, though, here in Congress this—the cost overruns, delays in delivery, all of that we have got to do this in a timely fashion.  And not say, hey, this is hard to do, so I am not going to do this either, which is what will happen.  And we expect delivery of this system be on time, and on budget, and perform.  Certainly our veterans deserve it and so do our taxpayers.

You also are correct that following up on where a chart is is one of the most frustrating things in the world in my own office is to start looking for a chart.  And it is on this one's desk, and it is over here, and it is over there.  So to try to ever find one sometimes or to put a finger on who was responsible for that chart, when it is lost, what I found is nobody was responsible for it.  It didn't happen on anybody's shift.  You probably have experienced the same record I—I mean, same situation.  I will stop and let you answer or just comment.

Mr. WALCOFF.  Well, if I can—there are two things that I want to comment on.  First of all, I appreciate your comments about our plan to go paperless and the importance of staying on that plan and finishing on time. 

We recently, I guess it was probably about 2 months ago, gave a briefing to the staffers of this Committee on the status of our paperless initiative.  And at that time, expressed a willingness to brief this Committee and its staffers as many times as they wish, so that they feel comfortable with the fact that we are staying on schedule.

We have started working with a lead systems integrator.  We are working on—with another contractor working on business transformation.  We are looking at some of the things that were talked about here about scanning options and whether you do it in one place or whether you do it in 57 places.  So these are all issues that have to be resolved in order to get it right. 

But we are still on schedule for being paperless by 2012.  That was the schedule that—it was the charge we got from the Deputy Secretary last year.  And we are committed to meeting that deadline.  So I appreciate your comments on that.

As far as the difficulty in tracking who is responsible, I know exactly what you are saying.  And our process does require the file to move to many different places.  And that is one of the things that we look at and the way—the process we are using to work claims.  And as we look at—we are constantly looking at that process.  The many hand offs that are involved is one of the things that we are looking at and saying is this necessary?

So, I don't know what that—where we are going to go with that.  But it is certainly an issue, as you have mentioned.  And it is something that makes it difficult to trace back to any particular individual when something goes missing. 

Again, electronic I think, you know, if you have somebody—if you have a way to make it so that every time somebody touches that electronic file it is recorded, then you know who has touched that file.

Mr. ROE.  I thank you.  Mr. Chairman, thank you for your indulgence.  And for the remainder of the hearing I would like to ask unanimous consent that Minority Counsel be permitted to ask questions of the witnesses.

Mr. HALL.  Without objection, after other Members have had their chance. 

Mrs. Halvorson, you are recognized. 

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

I have a couple of questions.  But thank you again panel.  And, Mr. Walcoff, I understand that if this was easy to fix, you have been there 35 years, you would have done it already.  So this isn't something that can simply just be fixed overnight.

However, I do have one question.  I can't help myself.  I do have to ask.  You know, in the first panel we were discussing the fact that it is just so much easier to deny everybody's benefits.  And it forces them to appeal.  Why is it that we just can't go the extra mile to help our veterans and get through it first instead of just denying and forcing everybody to go and appeal, which forces you to have to deal with something twice and even sometimes more?

Mr. WALCOFF.  If you will, I will just have to tell you that I disagree with the premise that it is easier to deny.  What we find is we do have a lot of complaints about our work, our work measurement systems.  When I say work measurement, I am talking about the way we evaluate individuals. 

And I think there seems to be a consensus among everybody on both sides of the table that we need to look at that.  The law that you passed last year requires us to look at it.  Frankly we were going to look at it anyway.

But what is interesting is that a lot of our managers are unhappy with those same standards.  But they are unhappy about it because they feel it rewards an individual VSR for what we would call over developing a case, because they get credit.  Every time they go out and ask for evidence, they get credit for that. 

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Yeah.

Mr. WALCOFF.  That counts towards their production goals.  So they feel that there is sometimes is an incentive for employees to go out and ask for something that they don't really need.  They already have enough evidence to grant.  But yet they go out and ask for another piece, because they will get more credit. 

So, you know, that is certainly not something that is the right thing to do, nor, obviously, would be—

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Right.

Mr. WALCOFF [continuing].  —what you were describing where they deny just to get the case off their desk.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Mm-hmm.

Mr. WALCOFF.  So I think the answer is that we agree that we need to look at the way we measure individual performance.  And we need to make sure that the way we do it is what is best for the veteran.  And it encourages the types of behavior that are right for veterans.

The one thing I do want to disagree with that was said by Mr. Abrams is that all we care about is productivity and we don't care about quality.  If you look at the individual performance standards that we have on individuals, there is obviously a component for production.  But there is an equal component for quality.  And they are both measured for individuals.  And they are both measured when we evaluate our directors and the performance of stations.  Both are important.  And, you know, I certainly want to make that clear that we do not ignore quality.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  And that is good to hear, because it saddens me to think that the veteran who has done everything that they can—the only thing I want to do is just ask—I want to know what steps you are taking to ensure that our veterans—that this is not the culture in the VA.  The fact that these incidents that we are discussing today, the shredding of documents, the misdating of claims, are all terrible reflections on the VA.  We need to get that trust back.  I just would like to know what steps we are taking to ensure that our veterans—that we can go back and tell our veterans that this is not the culture of our VA.  And what kind of sort of behavior are we going to tell them that we are not going to tolerate, that we are going to turn this around.  Do you have any ideas?

And why have we only heard about the mail amnesty through—or why is it that we have only heard of the mail amnesty through the OIG's testimony, not anywhere else?

Mr. WALCOFF.  I know that I was going to answer the mail amnesty question in writing.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Oh, that is right.  Since we are going to have to vote, maybe

Mr. WALCOFF.  Yeah.

Mrs. HALVORSON [continuing].  —that is probably best, because that might take a while.

Mr. WALCOFF.  Because I want to specifically talk about that.  But I think your question is a very fair one.  And this came up at the roundtable that Chairman Filner had back in December.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  Yes.

Mr. WALCOFF.  And his point was that there was a—this was something that was in our culture, you know, this dishonesty, and that veterans have lost trust in us because of that.  And I don't agree that it is in our culture.  I think that I can't deny, obviously, that individual events happened. 

But I will tell you that in terms of the shredding, for instance, we found, and the OIG concurred, that the overwhelming percentage of cases where there were documents where they shouldn't have been, were placed there inadvertently through carelessness, which I am certainly not defending but not through intentional acts. 

And we believe that by properly training, by putting a system in place where we have checks and checks on actions taken by individuals, that we can set up a system that is a deterrent that causes people to say, hey, I have got to be thinking about what I am putting here, you know, rather than just picking up pieces of paper and not caring that maybe there is a piece of paper in the middle of that file that shouldn't be there.

So I think that we are trying to set things up that will send a message to employees that it is part of their responsibilities to ensure that these things don't happen.  Even if we know that—we say we know you are not doing it intentionally, but yet you still have a responsibility to make sure you know what you are doing.

Mrs. HALVORSON.  All right.  Thank you very much.  I yield back.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Halvorson?

Mrs. Kirkpatrick?

Mrs. KIRKPATRICK. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  I just simply want to thank you for having this hearing today and thank our panelists.  It has been very, very enlightening to me.  I do have some questions, but since we have been called to the floor, I am going to submit them in writing.  So thank you very much.  And I yield back.

Mr. HALL.  Thank you, Mrs. Kirkpatrick.  Would Minority Counsel like to ask a question or two, or submit them in writing with our questions?

Mr. WU.  Yes, sir.

Mr. HALL.  Okay.  We will combine our questions and send it to you and ask for a response as soon as it is possible. 

Thank you once again for your testimony.  Thank you for taking the initiative that you did to find out once you discovered that something was amiss, especially in the New York RO.  As a representative from the State of New York, I want to thank you for our veterans in New York. 

We are happy to hear that individual veterans received their claims and did not suffer directly as a result.  But as many Members said, and as you said, the trust, the bond of trust between our veterans and the VA needs to be strengthened.  These kinds of things can only weaken it.

So thank you for the work you are doing on this.  We are looking forward to that next briefing on the paperless system and anything we can do.  As you can hear the enthusiasm from outside of the table for it.  We are looking forward to that being the case.

Ms. Rubens, Mr. Mayes, and Mr. Walcoff thank you again for being here.  This hearing is now adjourned.

[Whereupon, at 3:37 p.m., the Subcommittee was adjourned.]


APPENDIX

Prepared Opening Statements:

Prepared statement of Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York
Prepared statement of Hon. Harry E. Mitchell, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and a Representatives in Congress from the State of Arizona
Prepared statement of Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and a Representative  in Congress from the State of Colorado
Prepared statement of Hon. David P. Roe, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Tennessee


Prepared Witness statements:

Prepared statement of Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans
Prepared statement of Ronald B. Abrams, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program
Prepared statement of Kathryn A. Witt, Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc.
Prepared statement of Geneva Moore, Senior Veterans Service Representative, Veterans Benefits Administration Regional Office, Winston-Salem, NC, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO
Prepared statement of Belinda J. Finn, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Prepared statement of Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs


Submissions for the Record:

Prepared statement of Susan R. Frasier, Albany, NY
Prepared statement of Master Sergeant Kurt Priessman, USAF (Ret.), Vernon, TX
Prepared letter of Berta M. Simmons, Cohocton, NY


Material Submitted for the Record:

News Article:

"Veterans Affairs Probe: Records Found in Shredder BinEmployee Under Investigation," The State, By Chuck Crumbo, November 6, 2009

Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record:

Hon. Ann Kirkpatrick, Member of Congress, U.S. House of Representatives, to Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 4, 2009, and VA responses

 Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Kerry Baker, Assistant National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans, letter dated March 25, 2009, and DAV responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Ronald Abrams, Joint Executive Director, National Veterans Legal Services Program, letter dated March 25, 2009, and NVLSP responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Kathryn Witt, Co-Chair, Government Relations Committee, Gold Star Wives of America, Inc., letter dated March 25, 2009, and GSW responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Marilyn Park, Legislative Representative, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, letter dated March 25, 2009, and AFGE responses

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Belinda Finn, Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 25, 2009, and response letter dated April 23, 2009, from Hon. George Opfer, Inspector General, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Michael Walcoff, Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated March 25, 2009, and VA responses

Hon. George Opfer, Inspector General, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter to Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, letter dated March 26, 2009  [An identical letter was sent to Hon. Harry E. Mitchell, Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Hon. Doug Lamborn, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, and Hon. David P. Roe, Ranking Republican Member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Committee on Veterans' Affairs.]