April 6, 2010
Welcome, Madam Chairman, and thank you for holding this hearing on the nominations to fill two important positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs -- the Under Secretary for Benefits and Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs.
Today, we'll discuss the qualifications of the nominees to serve in those demanding roles -- General Allison Hickey and Mr. Steve Muro. Welcome to each of you and to your family and friends who are here today.
General Hickey, first of all, thank you for your long and dedicated service in the military. And thank you for your willingness to serve veterans, by taking on the great challenge of leading VA's Veterans Benefits Administration.
VBA provides a range of benefits and services to help improve the lives of veterans, their families, and their survivors. But, in some areas, VBA struggles to deliver effective benefits and services without hassles or delays.
Primarily, VBA's disability claims processing system has been criticized for many years for large backlogs, long delays, and inaccurate decisions. And the problems are expected to get even worse. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of pending claims is projected to more than double and the average time it takes to complete a claim is expected to increase by nearly 70 days. Getting this situation under control must be a top priority.
To that end, VA has a number of IT solutions and other initiatives underway. But, we must make sure VA has a realistic, comprehensive plan to pull these efforts together, so there will be lasting improvements in VA's ability to provide accurate, timely decisions. Veterans in North Carolina and across the nation deserve no less.
Another challenge is the large differences in service provided by VA's regional offices around the country. Some consistently meet expectations, while others tend to struggle. As the Veterans of Foreign Wars put it, (quote) "The real question is why these vast differences exist between regional offices? Is it management? Training?" We need answers to those questions and, more importantly, we need solutions.
VA is also working with the Department of Defense to roll out an Integrated Disability Evaluation System, which allows injured servicemembers to find out what benefits they will get from both agencies before being medically discharged. But, in testing this new approach, concerns have been raised about delays, staffing shortages, logistical problems, and the quality of life of servicemembers who are going through the process.
So, moving forward, we must make sure any sites using this new approach have appropriate resources, facilities, and staffing. More importantly, whatever system is in place must be able to meet the needs of wounded servicemembers and actually help to improve their lives.
General Hickey, if confirmed, these are just a few of the pressing issues you would face as the head of the Veterans Benefits Administration. I look forward to discussing your plans to tackle them, and I again thank you for your willingness to serve in this role.
Turning to you, Mr. Muro, thank you for your military service and for your work on behalf of veterans and their families for over three decades -- including serving as the Acting Under Secretary for more than two years.
As you know well, VA's National Cemetery Administration has the solemn mission of honoring and memorializing our nation's fallen heroes. For veterans of every generation, it is the aim of our grateful nation to provide a final resting place worthy of their sacrifices and to respectfully tend to their grieving loved ones.
As shown by the recognition NCA has received for high levels of customer service, NCA has been diligently fulfilling that role. But, the issues that have come to light at Arlington National Cemetery should remind all of us how critical it is to remain vigilant, so that veterans and their families will receive the top-notch service they deserve, now and in the future.
Mr. Muro, I look forward to discussing your thoughts on how to keep NCA on the right path, and I thank you again for your interest in continuing to serve as the head of the National Cemetery Administration.
I thank the Chair.