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Vice Ranking Member Takano Hosts Hearing To Assess Implementation Of Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act

Jul 24, 2018
Press Release

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Vice Ranking Member Mark Takano (D-CA) released the following statement after the full committee met in open session to assess how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has implemented the Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 since the legislation was signed into law. During the hearing, Vice Ranking Member Takano addressed several challenges facing appeals modernization, including leadership vacancies and staffing shortages at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), in addition to various high-level controversies instigated by Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke.

“The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act made much needed improvements to VA’s disability appeals process by replacing the old legacy process with one that empowers the veteran,” said Vice Ranking Member Takano. “Before this bipartisan legislation was signed into law, veterans often had to wait many years for their claims to be processed. Those wait-times were unacceptable, and we can never allow them to return. That is why Congress must ensure that VA implements the legislation effectively and in a way that prioritizes the veteran experience. That means filling key leadership vacancies at VBA, hiring talented and hardworking employees, and bringing to an end the distracting controversies that have plagued VA under Acting Secretary O’Rourke’s watch. I look forward to working closely with Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence, as well as the newly confirmed Secretary Robert Wilkie, as we work to eliminate the existing claims backlog and improve the appeals process.”

Rep. Takano Opening Statement As Prepared For Delivery

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

We congratulate Secretary Designate Wilkie on his confirmation by the Senate yesterday and look forward to working together with him in the future.

I’d also like to welcome back to the Committee Rep. Titus. She was the Ranking Member of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs.

I will get to the details of appeals modernization in a moment, but it is no secret that several actions taken by top VA leadership recently are troubling to our side of the aisle. 

I do not think we can get together as a Full Committee and pretend that these controversies don’t impact important progress in key programs throughout the Agency, including the implementation of the Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act.

First, the Senate actually had to intervene in late June to ensure the right of VA’s IG to obtain records as part of an ongoing investigation. Acting Secretary O’Rourke refused to cooperate with the requests for information of the VA Inspector General. 

Because Mr. O’Rourke’s failure to cooperate is unprecedented, several of us sent a letter to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency which provides oversight of federal IGs.

If he or the new Secretary are allowed to ignore the IG’s requests for information in the future, an important check will be lost on the kinds of waste and impropriety this Committee has been trying to locate and eliminate. The vote was 96-0 in the Senate to rein in Acting Secretary O’Rourke. This vote shouldn’t have been necessary and is a distraction from the work VA should be doing.

Furthermore, when I asked him about it at our Full Committee hearing last Tuesday, Mr. O’Rourke’s answer was that the IG’s “access to OAWP has been unfettered since day one.” This was untrue.

Secondly, recently several key career employees were moved to less important positions or pushed out, many seemingly without cause. 

After highly credible concerns were raised in whistleblower reports and press interviews with VA employees, several of us sent a letter to the US Office of Special Counsel asking for an investigation into whether these career public servants were moved out for cause or for political reasons, actions which would could violate the Hatch Act or other Title 5 protections. This is yet another distraction from what VA should be doing.

There has been considerable shuffling of leadership staff at VBA too.  We have just welcomed a new Undersecretary for Benefits, Dr. Paul Lawrence, for whom we wish nothing but success. But, two key VBA vacancies remain unfilled: Deputy Under Secretary for Disability Assistance, and Deputy Under Secretary for Economic Opportunity. 

Though we are grateful for the experience and continued dedication to duty of Chair Mason at the Board, Mr. Thrower in the Office of Information Technology, and Mr. McLenachen, Ms. Murphy, Mr. Quill and others at VBA, if appeals modernization is going to be implemented on time in seven short months VBA management must stabilize. 

Vacant positions must be filled and the controversies and distractions of all of this shuffling must end.

The Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act signed into law on August 23rd of last year was a triumph in bipartisanship. There was, and is, nothing Republican or Democratic about it. 

The VSOs invested a lot of faith in the idea that if they put aside some long held differences and worked in concert with the other and the VA, a better way forward could be devised. 

The result of all of this effort was the Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act and after 11 months, we are now at a key point in the implementation process.  The long awaited regulations will be published this week. 

What these regulations say and whether the IT necessary to make all of this work can be delivered on time, are where we should be concentrating our efforts.

GAO will testify that there are still gaps in key areas.

--It says VA’s plan for a performance measurement system lacks specificity.

--The timeline does not reflect the interdependencies among key activities. 

--And finally, VA has not done the risk assessments basic to any change management strategy.

Nonetheless, there is progress and hope for a successful roll out to full implementation in February.

The pilots are in place.  Claims processors and attorneys have been hired.  Impressive IT has been delivered and is working at the Board. 

Having said that, if another leadership upheaval sweeps through and the experienced hands like those here today are replaced or reassigned, Appeals Improvement and Modernization could be jeopardized.

We are proud of this Act and we do not want unnecessary distractions to get in the way.

Thank you Mr. Chairman, I yield back.

Witnesses

The Honorable Paul R. Lawrence

Under Secretary for Benefits

Veterans Benefits Administration

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Accompanied by:

The Honorable Cheryl L. Mason

Chairman

Board of Veterans’ Appeals

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Mr. David R. McLenachen

Director, Appeals Management Office

Veterans Benefits Administration

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Mr. Richard J. Hipolit

Deputy General Counsel for Legal Policy

Office of General Counsel

U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Mr. Lloyd Thrower

Deputy Chief Information Officer, Account Manager, Benefits Portfolio

Office of Information & Technology

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

 

Ms. Elizabeth H. Curda

Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team

U.S. Government Accountability Office

 

Accompanied by:

 

Mr. James T. Whitcomb

Assistant Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Team

U.S. Government Accountability Office

 

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