Congresswoman Annie Kuster (NH-02) this week joined a bipartisan group of lawmakers in urging Department of Defense (DoD) Secretary Chuck Hagel to follow through on a February 2013 plan of action to improve disability benefits claims processing for transitioning service members and veterans. The plan, agreed to by both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs (VA), calls for DoD to begin the transfer of complete and certified Service Treatment Records (STRs) to VA immediately, with electronic transfer capabilities to be in place by December 31, 2013.
"This agreement has been represented by VA as a "game-changer' in enabling and improving its disability benefits claims system," the group wrote in its letter to Secretary Hagel. "Ultimately, this will allow VA to issue compensation to disabled veterans faster. We support this joint initiative, and want to ensure that the resources required to execute it remain in place."
The full text of the letter is below.
April 16, 2013
The Honorable Chuck Hagel
Secretary of Defense
1000 Defense Pentagon
Washington DC 20301
Dear Secretary Hagel:
As you lead the Department of Defense in its tremendous operations, we write to underscore the importance of your continued and enhanced communication and collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs. In February 2013, DoD and VA mutually agreed on a plan of action to improve disability benefits claims processing for transitioning service members and veterans. The plan provides for DoD to begin the transfer of complete and certified Service Treatment Records (STRs) to VA immediately, with electronic transfer capabilities to be in place by December 31, 2013. This agreement has been represented by VA as a "game-changer" in enabling and improving its disability benefits claims system. Ultimately, this will allow VA to issue compensation to disabled veterans faster.
We support this joint initiative, and want to ensure that the resources required to execute it remain in place. The VA/DoD information paper codifying the agreement states that success is dependent upon approved Joint Initiative Funding for labor and hardware. We request that DoD confirm current funding approval, and, if necessary, coordinate with VA and this Congress to forecast and ensure this initiative's funding needs are met. We note that all concerns regarding funding of this initiative must be resolved promptly and in coordination with VA and this Congress.
We learned that the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs wrote to you in recent days on this very same issue. This demonstrates that concern for our veterans and the effects of the disability claims backlog is both bipartisan and bicameral. The members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs echo the request of the Senate--that you work to strengthen DoD's existing partnership with VA as it improves its disability benefits claims system. As the Senate Committee noted, a seamless electronic transmission of records must be achieved and must include active duty service members as well as the Guard and Reserves. In upholding the promises made to this nation's service members and veterans, we will do all in our power to ensure the continued and enhanced partnership of DoD and VA.
The expectations of the American public, including the men and women who have worn the uniform, are reasonable. Veterans' disability benefits claims must be adjudicated in a timely and accurate manner and veterans must receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In the VA/DoD information paper provided to the committee it states that a veteran waits, on average, over 250 days for decision on a disability benefits claim. In some locations the wait is considerably longer. In that period, the information paper also indicates that the veteran's claim sits stagnant for up to 175 days as VA awaits transfer of complete STRs from DoD. Thus, the necessity of DoD and VA's cooperation cannot be overstated. Claims processing of veterans' disability benefits simply will not achieve a satisfactory timeline until the process for transfer of records between DoD and VA is updated, improved, and streamlined.
As we highlight the importance of this DoD/VA initiative to provide for electronic transfer of complete and certified STRs, both for active duty and the Guard and Reserves, and the requisite inquiry into the adequacy of the program's Joint Initiative Funding, we also welcome your input as we work to fulfill our obligations to the men and women who have served this nation.