(U.S. Senate) – Chairman Jon Tester urged the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to keep its focus on disabled veterans as the Department addresses challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic during a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing today. Due to COVID-19-related closures and suspension of services, the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) announced a spike and a claims inventory of more than 500,000 as of May 1.
“Disabled veterans must have confidence their claims will be fairly and accurately decided,” said Tester. “Last year’s removal of the 48-hour review period is an example of when VBA—obsessed with speed—removed a veteran’s ability to correct errors before a final decision was made. Everyone appreciates quickness, but forcing vets to appeal errors just makes them wait longer. So when it comes to renewing VBA’s focus on the disabled veteran, we’ve got work to do.”
For months, Tester fought tirelessly to secure $272 million in the American Rescue Plan to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic on the benefits claims and appeals backlog for veterans in Montana and across the country. At the hearing, the Chairman emphasized the need for VA to develop a process rooted in quality and fairness that places veterans at the center of their claims.
VA went on to announce the centralization of all military sexual trauma (MST) claims through five regional offices to help improve accuracy in claims decisions and better support survivors following the Senator’s efforts. Last year, the Senator successfully secured portions of his Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act as part of an end-of-year veterans’ package, legislation requiring specialized teams at VBA to evaluate disability claims involving MST. Doubling down on his long-time push to support MST survivors, Tester will be reintroducing legislation in the 117th Congress to amend the standard of proof for service-connection of mental health conditions related to MST, to ensure those who have served get the benefits and compensation they have earned.
During the second panel, Tester heard from the Government Accountability Office and veterans’ advocates on other ways the VBA can make the disability claims process more veterans-focused. Carmen McGinnis, a National Service Officer with Disabled American Veterans, highlighted additional measures to strengthen support for MST survivors: “There are a few things the VA can do to better support MST survivors. One, is lowering the evidentiary standard. Second, would be to revise their development letters and ensure veterans have the direct contact information for their local MST coordinator, in VBA and VHA, and that they are made aware of the medical benefits that might be available to them… Also ensuring claims processors are well trained and properly overseen, keeping in mind the perspective and feelings of the survivor and not rushing a claim through a standardized process.”
The Senator’s opening statement as prepared for delivery can be found HERE.
Tester’s full Q&A is available HERE.