Good morning and welcome everyone. This oversight hearing of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs will now come to order.
As is often the case when this Subcommittee convenes, we are here to discuss the backlog of veterans' disability benefits claims. Unfortunately, when such discussions take place, we often find ourselves having the same discussion over and over.
Frustrated veterans want to know why it takes so long to process their claim. Frustrated lawmakers want to know why the backlog keeps increasing. And frustrated VA employees want everyone to know that the folks on the front lines are doing the best they can to try to keep up with an increasing amount of claims.
However, every so often a new idea is interjected into the discussion, and we are here today to discuss one such idea.
In 2009, the State of Texas created a "Claims Processing Assistance Team" that helped reduce pending claims at the State's two Regional Offices, or "ROs", in Waco and Houston. $400,000 was allocated toward about a dozen employees over several months, and those employees reduced the number of pending claims in Waco and Houston by 17,000. Despite this success, the situation has since worsened for veterans not only in Texas but across the country, as the amount of pending claims has doubled since that time.
As a recent Center for Investigative Reporting study reveals, the impact of the backlog varies by region. The study finds that: veterans in sparsely populated states often have their benefits claims processed faster than those in more populous states.
In addition to this study, the media has also been paying close attention to veterans who must wait the longest to receive their benefits -- which are veterans in Texas and, as is well-known to the Ranking Member Mr. McNerney, California.
But, the fact remains that no matter where a veteran is located, more often than not, that veteran is waiting too long to receive their benefits decision.
Once again taking action into their own hands, in late July of this year, the Texas State Legislature created a "State Strike Force Team," led by the Texas Veterans Commission. This time around, they have allocated $1.5 million dollars and 16 full time employees. The goal of the State Strike Force Team is to assist veterans and their families in receiving disability compensation and pension payments earlier than expected.
Specifically, eight claims counselors will be located at both the Houston and Waco Regional Offices to help process claims. There will also be "Fully Developed Claims" Teams located throughout the state to improve access and assist veterans in filing fully developed claims.
By examining this process today, we are hoping that this State Strike Force Team will serve as a model to other states and perhaps even lead to the creation of a similar Federal Strike Force Team.
I want to thank the VA, the Texas Veterans Commission, and Mr. Hernandez for their valuable input as we work together to find important solutions to the growing backlog of claims.
I welcome today's witnesses to continue this ongoing discussion and offer their own specific recommendations on how to improve the current system of processing veterans' disability claims.