AMVETS National Commander Tom McGriff before the committee on Veterans’ Affairs United States
House of Representatives concerning the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee accomplishments in fiscal year 2007 and looking
ahead to fiscal year 2008
Sept. 20, 2006
Chairman Buyer, members of the Committee:
Earlier this month, we paused to remember the men and women who lost their lives on September 11, 2001. We watched in horror
as American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center. Later, many of our worst fears were
realized when three more planes were hijacked. The attacks against the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the failed attempt
in rural Pennsylvania began a new era in American history. This era is marked by a new kind of patriotism our nation has never
known. Instead of the fear and hopelessness the terrorists of 9/11 hoped to plant, courage and valor have grown. We rebuilt
and regained our strength, and we will never let the images of the crashed planes, falling buildings and burning countryside
fade from our memories.
Today, this nation is engaged in a different kind of war. We have a new generation of brave American’s once again
deployed around the world, answering the call to arms. When they return home with physical and psychological wounds –
most of which will never heal – we have a great moral obligation to care for them. I sincerely believe that an elected
official has no greater duty than to provide for and be attentive to those who have bravely defended our nation and our freedoms.
Mr. Chairman, the focus of today’s hearing is to look at what the Committee has accomplished this year, and look
ahead to next year. We certainly thank you and the Committee for its work in passing measures aimed to restrict protests at
military funerals, enhance the Servicemembers’ Life Insurance program, provide veterans with a COLA, improve veterans
housing, strengthen VA’s information technology, and other matters. But I think it is more important to look at where
we are today, and examine the areas that need to be improved so VA can care for all veterans seeking care. I will focus my
remarks on four issues: assured funding, veterans mental health, the claims backlog, and the veteran’s attorney legislation.
First, assured funding. Every time we send our young men and women into combat, we are asking them to make a huge sacrifice
for the rest of us. Their lives and their health care are the real follow-up cost to any war. The VA budget for fiscal year
2007 was a step in the right direction, but sadly, it does not go far enough to meet the needs of all veterans. Members of
Congress touted that this is the first year The Independent Budget has been used to tabulate VA’s budget. I ask why?
The Independent Budget has been in existence for over twenty years, and has been proven time and time again to be the most
accurate estimate of VA’s funding requirements. If you are really serious about meeting the needs of veterans, use The
Independent Budget’s figures for fiscal year 2008.
Veterans’ health care is an ongoing cost of war, and should be treated as such. No veteran should have to fight for
the care he or she has earned by virtue of military service. But that is exactly what many veterans are forced to do. Access
to quality health care has been compromised by budget shortfalls, rising medical costs and a sharp and steady increase in
demand for services. The current discretionary funding formula pits VA against other agencies and billions in pork barrel
projects. Over the years, this process has proven its weakness in providing for the needs of enrolled veterans. Frankly, the
system needs to be fixed. The only way VA can fulfill its mission is for Congress to guarantee the funding it needs to operate.
Contrary to some belief, Congress would not lose oversight if assured funding in instituted. As with other direct funding
entitlements, Congress would retain its current supervision of VA programs and health care services. Additionally, VA would
still be held accountable for how its funds are being spent and how well its health care programs are managed. In fact, most
federal health care programs are funded through mandatory funding. Isn’t it only fair to put our nation’s sick
and disabled veterans on the same level as these other entitlements? The cost of freedom does not come cheap. Caring for veterans
is an American responsibility, and one that should not be subject to an arbitrary and time-consuming process.
Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) have resulted in the deployment of hundreds of thousands
of troops since 2002. It is estimated that approximately a third of military personnel will need mental health treatment upon
returning from these operations. For those who served in the Iraq, 35 percent requested mental health services one year after
deployment or leaving the service. We've learned from past conflicts that war has long-lasting psychological effects. Mental
and emotional problems can be just as devastating as physical wounds. But getting a handle on PTSD and other disorders is
tremendously difficult. The effects vary for each person. Some never show symptoms, others show them immediately.
Unfortunately, VA has had an uneven record of service to veterans with mental health needs. We applaud Congress for having
codified into law special safeguards to ensure VA gives priority to the needs if veterans with mental illness. But more needs
to be done. VHA must invest resources in programs that aid patients’ recovery rather than managing and treating symptoms.
VA should develop a continuum of care that includes case management, rehabilitation, peer support, work therapy, and other
support services with an overarching goal of recovery. Additionally, VA must work hand-in-hand with DoD to help returning
service members obtain treatment for war-related mental health problems. We are learning more everyday about the effects of
war and the toll PTSD has on soldier’s lives, and I encourage this Committee to continue its efforts to help VA assist
veterans on the long road to recovery.
VA continues to experience challenges processing veterans' disability compensation and pension claims. The backlog is at
a critical stage, with significant errors numbering about 100,000 per year. The average initial claim takes more than six
months to complete, and appeals of denied claims can take as long as three years.
VBA is also faced with many experience claims processors reaching the retirement age. According to VBA, it takes 2 to 3
years of experience for claims decision-makers to achieve a fully productive level of expertise. Currently, about half of
VBA’s staff has 3 years or less of decision-making experience. VBA needs to tackle this problem now so they are not
faced with even more inexperienced staff when the Baby-Boom generation retires. That means hiring and training new employees
immediately. AMVETS believes VBA is capable of reducing backlogs and improving error rates, but only if and when new technology,
better training, more staff, and real accountability is implemented. That takes time and money, not budget cuts and staff
reductions, which have been proposed in recent budgets.
In fact, AMVETS is so passionate looking at claims and other VBA challenges, we are hosting a National Symposium for the
Needs of Young Veterans in mid-October. The Symposium’s goals are to reach a consensus on the key problems facing veterans,
offer solutions that will modernize the system, and suggest how to enhance benefits for the National Guard and Reservists.
In November 2006, the Symposium will publish an action plan that will define, describe and prioritize the steps needed to
provide a modern benefits program and an effective delivery system.
Our goal is quite clear – to raise public discussion about veterans benefits to a whole new level. One of the greatest
and largely unrecognized challenges facing America is how we will provide for the needs of young veterans, namely those who
are currently serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world today. If you are concerned about the future of veterans’
benefits in America, then I encourage you to support us in this endeavor and seriously study our action plan. I am confident
the Symposium will provide Congress and VA will a realistic report that will improve the system now and into the 21st century.
Choice in Representation Legislation
AMVETS has many serious concerns with the House and Senate veteran’s choice of representation bills. As you know,
the Senate passed their version, S. 2694, with a number of other non-controversial veterans benefits enhancements attached
to it. We support the added language now contained in the Senate bill and urge its passage, but only without the attorney
Veterans service organization provide, free of charge, excellent representation and a broad range of services to any veteran
- member or not - within the community. AMVETS has specialty-trained representatives stationed around the country to assist
veterans wanting to file a claim. We have access to the VA system, know exactly who to contact, and are acquainted with the
people who make the decisions. We feel we provide a greater and more efficient service than any lawyer could.
If lawyers are allowed into the system, it would overturn veterans protections that have been in place since the Civil
War. It will not improve the procedure or make it more efficient. Just the opposite would be true. A good lawyer will do what
they can to lengthen the process, potentially exploiting the system in order to maximize the result. The benefits system was
designed be a non-adversarial, open, informal process to ensure veterans received the benefits promised to them. Adding lawyers
to the mix will create a potentially hostile situation between the veteran and VA.
Furthermore, VA cannot handle lawyers. The VA benefits system is a labyrinth of laws and regulations that takes years of
experience and training to understand and navigate. Most lawyers do not have an understanding of the complexity of veteran’s
law, the vast VA bureaucracy, or even know what is rightfully due to a veteran. VA will not doubt be inundated with calls
from legal aids wanting to know exactly how VA works and how to navigate through the department. VBA is financially strapped
as it is, and claims backlogs continue to grow without this added burden.
Mr. Chairman, before you consider this provision, I would ask the Committee to explore ways to reduce pending cases by
fixing staffing shortfalls, improving training programs, and holding claims processors accountable for the quality of their
work. That is what is going to solve VA’s internal problems and claims backlogs, not attorney’s.
We have many challenges ahead. Record deficits are setting the stage for future budget cuts and many program efficiencies.
While I certainly agree the federal government needs to get it’s fiscal house in order, I do not agree this should come
at the expense of veterans and their families. I encourage this Committee to put aside political differences and political
pressures and work together to create a budget that guarantees the care of all those who defend this nation. Veterans deserve
a government that is committed to the same values they fought to preserve.
In closing Mr. Chairman, AMVETS looks forward
to working with you and the Committee to ensure the earned benefits of all of America’s veterans are strengthened and
improved. We must remain vigilant in our fight against those who would take away the freedoms for which so many veterans have
fought. We must remain firm in our support of American troops at home and abroad and never forget their daily sacrifices.
I would like to say a special “thank you” to these members of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard,
National Guard and Reserves who continue to defend our nation. America is truly the land of the free and the home of the brave
because of what you do.
This concludes my testimony. Thank you again for the opportunity to present our views, and I would be happy to answer any
question you might have