CORRECTING THE WASHINGTON POST RECORD ON THE VA -- (Extensions of Remarks - October 11, 2004)
Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to set the record straight on what is happening to recently-separated veterans who seek benefits and services from the Department of Veterans Affairs. There has been significant progress made in the last 3 years; some of that progress was reported correctly in a Washington Times article this past Sunday, but the headline in a piece from the Washington Post that appeared on the same day and was quoted by one of my colleagues on Monday made it seem that VA is totally unprepared to provide disability, compensation, rehabilitation and other benefit to America's veterans.
It is inaccurate to describe the current inventory of 323,000 claims for VA benefits as a "backlog," if by that term you mean to imply that veterans are waiting unnecessarily for an answer from VA. The truth is that at any given time, the VA is actively processing more than 250,000 claims while receiving more than 70,000 new and reopened claims each month. It's normal for the VA to have a working inventory of at least 250,000 claims.
In fact, Mr. Speaker, at the request of this President, Congress provided additional funding to increase the number of VA claims processors by more than 1,300 since he took office. When we authorized these new employees, we effectively overstaffed the VA so that experienced employees would be available to train these new employees without an adverse effect on the timeliness of claims processing. These new employees are now fully trained and productive, and there should be no reduction in services to veterans.
With respect to meeting veterans' benefits needs, the Washington Post article cited recently one of my colleagues failed to mention any of the documented improvements in VA claims processing. In the past four years, the VA has reduced the average time to decide disability claims from a high of 233 days to 160 days, reduced the percentage of pending claims for over six months from 48% in 2002 to 21% now, reduced rating-related claims from 432,000 in 2002 to 323,000 currently and is on track to meet the VA goal of 250,000.
Most importantly, VA has increased the number of claims decisions from an average of 40,000 per month in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2004. These are significant accomplishments by the Bush Administration on behalf of veterans, and all of us should be proud to have supported the increased funding which the Administration requested to make this possible.
Mr. Speaker, the Washington Post article lead readers to believe that there was some delay in providing benefits to a soldier on active duty, and that the VA is unresponsive to America's veterans. In fact, I am advised that VA has already evaluated this particular soldier's disabilities and will begin awarding benefits on the first the day he is discharged from the Army. As all of my colleagues should know, VA cannot provide veterans benefits to a soldier until he or she is discharged from active duty.
The Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense are working hard to ensure that military members have a "seamless transition" from active duty; this means prompt decisions on claims for disability benefits and quality health care when needed. Even before servicemembers are discharged, VA provides transition services at 136 military bases so that servicemembers can ask questions and be briefed about their VA benefits and how to file for those benefits as they approach discharge. The VA has even assigned its own professional staff to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda and the Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany to ensure our wounded American heroes will be aware of their VA health care and benefits long before they are discharged.
Mr. Speaker it is often said that you shouldn't argue with an entity that buys ink by the barrel, but the Washington Post has its facts wrong in this case. This is not that surprising since the Post has not reported on any of the hearings-and we've had many-on these issues held by either the House Committee on Veterans Affairs which I chair and the House Armed Service Committee during the past year. Had they done so, their readers could have learned about the problems which have faced separating service members in the past and what is being done today to prevent those problems from occurring in the future.
Both the Armed Forces and VA are working more closely together than in any previous conflict to ensure that the benefits which service members earned by their faithful service are delivered in a timely and compassionate manner. Members who attended those hearings learned that while mistakes have occurred, no one is more dedicated to ensuring that these deserving veterans than the current VA Secretary Anthony Principi and his able staff. The VA, the Congress and the President are all working together to make sure that our newest generation of combat veterans are taken care of. They deserve nothing less.