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Honarable Jeff Miller

Honorable Jeff Miller Chairman, Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives

Opening Statement

Chairman Jeff Miller

House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

1988 to 2016:  VETSNET to VBMS; Billions Spent, Backlog Grinds On”

January 12, 2016 – 10:30 A.M. – 334 CHOB

Good morning, this hearing will come to order.

We are here to discuss yet another VA project that is over budget and underachieving.  Unfortunately, this is a familiar subject for the Committee.

Today, we will address the mismanagement of the Veterans Benefits Management System, called VBMS, which is VA’s electronic claims processing system.

VBMS is supposed to help expedite benefit claims decisions, eliminate rating inconsistencies and errors, and enable a more efficient claims process workflow.

Unfortunately, it isn’t working as intended.

VA promised to eliminate the backlog in 2015. It’s now 2016 and while VA has made progress, the backlog still exists. Similarly, VBMS is not yet completed, and VA has been unable to provide this Committee with a timeline for when it will be done.

As of January 1, 2016, there were over 360,000 disability claims pending, over 75,000 of which were pending more than 125 days, which is what VA defines as the “backlog,” and I will address that definition in a moment. This is despite Congress devoting substantial taxpayer resources—including significantly increasing VBA’s workforce by approximately 7,300 full-time employees between 2007 and 2014—to help VA meet its goal of eliminating the claims backlog by the end of 2015

Additionally, Congress has allocated more than $1 billion to VBMS – even though VA’s estimate in September 2009 priced VBMS at $580 million. Since then, the projected cost of the program has jumped to $1.3 billion—and there is no guarantee that VA will not need more money for VBMS in the future.

History seems to be repeating itself here. The cost overruns for VBMS would be bad enough but, after six years in development, VBMS is still not able to fully support disability claims and pension applications—and only acts as a document repository for appeals. That brings me to VA’s definition of what constitutes a backlog.

As of April 1, 2013, VA had an appeals inventory of almost 250,000; but, as of January 1, 2016, that number had ballooned to about 433,000 appeals, which are not counted by VA as part of the backlog. With the large increase in the number of appeals, it makes no sense that VA has not ensured VBMS’ ability to actually process appeals, as it did for initial claims.

In fact, I recently learned that the VA is projecting that it will certify almost 360,000 new appeals in FY 17 – that’s in comparison to almost 70,000 certified appeals in FY 15.

I am also alarmed that according to a GAO report, between January 2013 and May 2015, VBMS suffered from multiple system crashes, and was offline for a total of 117 hours—or almost three full work weeks. 

I expect VA to argue that any temporary disruptions caused by the implementation of VBMS have been outweighed by the program’s benefits.

Based on recent OIG and GAO investigations, I’m not sure that I agree because of the many other factors in reducing VA’s definition of the backlog.

Moreover, both the OIG and GAO reports of September 2015 criticize VA for not setting clear benchmarks for developing and implementing VBMS.

Of course, without concrete deadlines for the VBMS rollout, it is impossible to hold VA management accountable for meeting deadlines and demonstrating progress. But even if VBMS was performing perfectly, there are still management issues that add to processing times.

In a report issued just last week, the OIG found that the St. Petersburg Regional Office had a significant backlog of unprocessed veterans’ claims information at a scanning contractor facility. I am appalled that Florida veterans may have waited longer than other veterans due to this scanning delay.

Members, I’d like to draw your attention to the image above which demonstrates the extent of improperly stored and commingled veteran information at the contractor site.

Understandably, I am troubled that, in addition to the scanning delays, based on how this information was insecurely stored at the scanning facility; veterans’ information was potentially vulnerable to loss, theft, and misuse.

I will further explore this and other issues outline in my statement during the course of this hearing.

I now yield to the Ranking Member.