Remarks Following a Roundtable Discussion on the Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog with the Senate Appropriations Committee
SEN. BARBARA A. MIKULSKI, D-MD.: Okay, hi. Good afternoon, everybody. Today, we held a historic meeting of the Appropriations Committee, in which the full committee met to discuss the veterans backlog. We've been very concerned as the committee on the over 800 pending claims, and many of them have been -- been in existence for more than 125 days; 226 of them have a backlog of more than a year.
The -- the leadership of this endeavor has been led by Senator Tim Johnson and Senator Mark Kirk, who chair the VA MILCON Subcommittee. And I would like to salute them for their steadfast work in trying to crack the backlog. But as the full committee chair, I wanted to get everybody in the same room at the same time to talk about what is exactly required from the Department of Defense, from the Social Security Administration, and from the Internal Revenue Service so to get the bureaucracy moving so we can get the claims process moving and that we not only are spending more money, but we are actually shrinking the backlog.
It has been six years since the Dole-Shalala Commission that came out of the Walter Reed scandal that called for a seamless transmission for veterans, and particularly between DOD and VA. We heard robust conversation today. We had a vigorous bipartisan participation. And we think we have a path forward.
What we want to do is ask our leadership at these agencies to be insistent with their bureaucracy so that they meet the needs that VA does to adjudicate these claims, and the subcommittee chairman and vice chairman, Johnson and Kirk, we're going to be -- we ask them to be insistent and they're going to be persistent to make sure that this happens.
We're on the brink of Memorial Day. Many people will salute our veterans. We want to salute our veterans not only with words, but with deeds. And we think one of the important deeds is that you should not have to stand in line for more than a year if you have a disability claims pending with the Veterans Administration.
Now, the IRS and Social Security have upped their game in terms of complying to get the information to get to VA. Up until six months ago, IRS only reported to VA twice a year, in terms of all of this information. And it was often dated. It was certainly late. So we went from dated into delayed, that they're going to do this every single week.
Social Security, too, is also improving itself. But then we come to DOD. I'm going to ask Secretary Hagel to talk about what he is doing to make sure we do two things -- get from DOD to VA what they need, and also for there to be electronic systems developed so there are no techno-boondoggles.
What we've also agreed upon is that each agency, particularly DOD, has identified a high-level person who's sole focus is on this problem. Secretary Hagel is so designating that person. We look forward to working with that person. They have been now meeting frequently, and they're going to do that every 60 days. The committee is going to insist on metrics of accountability, where we get reports every two -- every two months, as well.
My predecessor, Senator Inouye, and also Senator Stevens, worked very hard to help these agencies. We have spent a great deal of money over the years, often to the tunes of billions of dollars. But we not only want to spend money; we want to stop wasting time to make sure that we move this backlog forward.
I know that both Senators Johnson and Kirk participated vigorously in this hearing. I didn't know if -- Senator Johnson, did you want to say something, or Senator Kirk? Senator Kirk, did you -- Senator Kirk, did you want to say something?
Okay, we're going to have Senator Kirk, and then we're going to turn to -- okay, we'll go to Shinseki and Colvin at Social Security. Now, I've had to use a little stool.
SEN. MARK S. KIRK, R-ILL.: Madam Chair, you're all set? Just go up? This is a very important moment for the Appropriations Committee to join together on forcing two bureaucracies to do the right thing for our veterans, that we learned today that in Chicago, a veteran who was pretty messed up will take 465 days before their disability claim will be adjudicated by the VA. And we think, with some good backup, that with a fully electronic medical record coming from DOD to VA, that that time can be really cut down, so we can do right by our veterans right when they get out of DOD and have that seamless transition into the VA.
This was an unusual meeting. I just -- I said to the SECDEF, I did not want to be his military aide this morning that explained that he was going up to the Hill to sit next to somebody from the IRS in this environment. It was amazing control that you had today, that whoever your mil aide is really got to hand it to them.
I will say that my hope is that eventually, based on the Shinseki method of building the Stryker, which was stripped down, telling all the propeller-heads to build an effective combat vehicle right away and field it is the way to go here. My hope is eventually that -- that basic medical records system that is in -- in the VA is adopted by both bureaucracies. It's called Vista, and I think we have a shot here at saving the taxpayers about a billion bucks and doing it -- and luckily, in these days of accountability, we got the name of the guy who is going to fix this, and his name is -- Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: Mike Lumpkin.
SEN. KIRK: Mike Lumpkin. And he is the guy who we're -- the secretary actually got -- got us the name, and we'll be following up with Mike Lumpkin to create this seamless transition between DOD and VA to make sure -- for the guys that we owe everything to, especially appropriate by Memorial -- that this happen before Memorial Day, that we're doing the right thing at the lowest cost for the taxpayer, seamless transition, straight from the Navy into the VA. I just mentioned Navy, because of my preference for that -- that service.
The real key here is the decision that Secretary Shinseki has made, is -- that is all open architecture that we allow America's innovators to create new apps, like in the Android system, where 70,000 new apps have been made. My hope is that this all just really benefits the soldiers out there who, when I served as a reservist in Afghanistan, almost all soldiers were deploying with iPhones and computers and know that system really well, making sure that that is also how we handle their medical records.
Senator Shaheen said something very intelligent in the meeting that we had there, that the medical records of the wounded soldier are already electronically sent to some place like Landstuhl or -- for final -- final treatment. If we can go right from the battlefield to a place like Landstuhl for seamless transition for our wounded soldier, we can certainly do it between the VA and DOD.
And with the leadership of Chairwoman Mikulski, looking forward to having Michael Lumpkin just rock and roll inside the five-sided building, and for the benefit of all of our veterans.
Guys, thank you. All set.
SEN. MIKULSKI: Careful, that's a little --
SEN. KIRK: There she is. And to my stroke battle buddy, who is my chair of my subcommittee on VA MILCON --
SEN. MIKULSKI: He's going to wait a little bit. We're going to turn to General Shinseki now.
SEN. KIRK: Yeah. Okay. Yeah, yeah.
SEN. MIKULSKI: (off mic)
SEN. KIRK: (off mic)
SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS ERIC SHINSEKI: Well, Chairwoman Mikulski, Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Kirk, Secretary Hagel, my friend from Social Security, Acting Commissioner Colvin, first, Chairwoman Mikulski, thank you very much for holding this roundtable and inviting all of us to participate. We value your leadership and the leadership of the committee and your support in providing veterans the care and services they've earned.
Today's roundtable offered an opportunity to provide an update on the compensation claims backlog and our ongoing work with the Department of Defense and with other federal agencies. We all agree that veterans wait too long to receive the benefits they've earned. This is not and has never been acceptable to VA or to Veterans Benefits Administration, where 52 percent of our workforce are veterans themselves.
With the president's leadership and the support of the Congress, we are aggressively executing a plan that we have put together to fix this decades-old problem and eliminate the backlog as we have indicated in 2015, and by that, I mean no claim being processed longer than 125 days, and our quality of performance at 98 percent or better.
We know much more needs to be done, but today's opportunity to have this full discussion with the members of the committee was most helpful. And again, I'd like to thank Chairwoman Mikulski for her leadership and her initiative in bringing us together. So, again --
SEN. MIKULSKI: Thank you very much, General.
Secretary -- did you want to say something, Ms. Colvin, or --
ACTING COMMISSIONER CAROLYN COLVIN: I'll be very brief. I would like to just say, I want to thank Chairwoman Mikulski for her leadership on this very important issue, ensuring that our veterans receive timely benefits. I believe that we have a very strong partnership with VA and certainly, also, DOD.
We are continuing to streamline our processes and be certain that we are able to move information very quickly to VA that they require. So I'm pleased that Chairwoman Mikulski brought us together today to better define these issues and to look at the game plan that we have moving forward. SSA continues to remain committed to ensuring that our veterans receive timely benefits, both those of the process by VA, as well as those that we process within SSA. Thank you very much.
SEN. MIKULSKI: Secretary Hagel?
SECRETARY HAGEL: Thank you. First, I would like to add my thanks to Chairwoman Mikulski and Senators Kirk and Johnson for their leadership on this issue, as well as the other senators who took time to come over this afternoon and have a very open and direct conversation about an issue that is as important to our country as any one issue. You take care of your people. It's that simple.
This country is very fortunate to have leaders like General Shinseki, who have agreed to continue to take on these big challenges. We've got a lot to do. We haven't done everything. We get that; we understand that. But it is important to acknowledge the purpose, as much as anything else.
From my perspective, as the secretary of defense, I have as much responsibility as does everyone in the Pentagon to assure that our veterans, as they work their way through active duty and become veterans, are not only cared for, but treated fairly. And they earn benefits. They -- they earn certain additional dynamics of a career. They deserve at the end of that career those -- those benefits. And so part of my job is to assure that that happens.
Department of Defense creates the veteran. It's the military that creates the veteran. We also have a response and a responsibility to defend this country. But they're not mutually exclusive. We can't defend our country without the right people, and you take care of your people.
I would address just very briefly a couple of points that the chairwoman made in what came out of the meeting today. The four agencies that were before the committee are essential and integrated and have more work to do. But the cooperation has been there. It will continue.
One of the first things I did when I went over to the Pentagon within the first week -- certainly within the first 10 days -- was to go over to the Veterans Affairs Department and spend time with Secretary Shinseki, a man who deserves great credit, a man I admire, a man I worked with over the years in different capacities. I went over there because I wanted to make sure the optic was clear in both Veterans Affairs and DOD that this issue was -- was as high a priority for me as the new secretary as any one priority.
I also went over there to learn. I went over there to listen, what are we not doing, what we need to do more of, what -- what are the expectations you have, but America has, the president has, the Congress has, the men and women who serve, of me, of the department that I lead?
Since then, we have had regular communication, we'll continue to do that. I made some decisions yesterday -- I think the press has that information -- it's direct, it's clear, it's open. It does relate to some extent to the backlog, but it is not directly to the backlog, but in -- in many ways, it is about the future of -- so that we don't have more backlogs.
And I say that because many times, as we are grappling with these big issues, many of the components get lost in the headline. And I would just also remind you, as I was thinking the other day about this meeting, in my confirmation speech that I gave before the Senate Armed Services Committee when I was up for confirmation hearing, this issue was in my testimony. This issue was in -- not as a throwaway, but I have a rather significant history and understanding in doing something about veterans issues, this one in particular, when I was at the VA, as deputy administrator in the first Reagan administration. I also said it again on the day that I was sworn in in my remarks.
Now, I can't do that myself. No one can do anything themselves. It's working, it's collaborating, which we will continue to do. Ric and I are pledged to do that. Our organizations are. I've made some decisions at DOD to restructure the accountability. Nothing can be accomplished without accountability, without -- without people.
We've got a ways to go. We get that. But we're moving in the right direction. It will be done. And I want to assure you, as I have Secretary Shinseki and members of Congress, that DOD will be a full partner, a responsible partner, understanding our piece of this, and we intend to be successful. Thank you.