9 April 2014 Legislative News Update 

4/9/2014 

weekly electronic newsletter, and is published
every Monday when Congress is in session.




In this issue:

  • AUSA on the Hill
  • Progress on VA Claims Backlog 

★★★

AUSA ON THE HILL

AUSA’s Assistant Director for National Guard Affairs Stan Crow and Isabelle Slifer, Assistant Director for Army Reserve Affairs represented AUSA at Guard-Reserve Caucus breakfasts held in both the House and Senate last week.

Sponsored by AUSA and some of their Military Coalition partners, these recurring breakfasts give the National Guard and reserve leadership the opportunity to present their top three priorities.

The featured speaker at the House breakfast was Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense, Christine Fox.  Fox provided insight into how the Defense Department formulated its budget request for fiscal 2014 and pointed out that at the same time the total force is significantly changing, the budget must still meet the strategic needs of our National Security.  She emphasized that a balance must be reached with end strength numbers and the way the Services are trained, armed and equipped.  She also acknowledged that lower end strength numbers carry a risk and that the department is willing to accept that risk with regards to long-term protracted ground operations.

The message provided at both events by the Guard and reserve leadership was similar.  The Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Gen. Frank Grass, said that his top three priorities are solid training for troops, predictability of deployments and end to sexual assaults.  He supports keeping some operational capability in the Guard.   He is concerned about aviation assets and keeping the National Guard in the game.  Also, he supports having a Commission look at ground forces affected by the Budget Control Act after 2020.  

Lt. Gen. Jeff Talley, Chief Army Reserve, would like to see sexual assaults eliminated, wellness of the Soldiers; i.e., suicide prevention, a Total force that is properly manned and trained.

Maj Gen. Judd Lyons, Acting Director, Army Guard, would like to see properly train- and equip-ready units for Federal and State missions with the National Guard as the military first responder to protect the Homeland, build the State Partnership program (currently involves 65 foreign Nations), take care of Family & Soldiers by ending sexual assaults and creating suicide prevention programs.

All of the leaders commented on the tight defense budget and the continuing impact of sequestration.

PROGRESS ON VA CLAIMS BACKLOG

Officials from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) announced that their current backlog of claims pending more than 125 days is at its lowest point in three years.  The backlog, reduced from 611,000 one year ago to 344,000 claims pending today, is a 44 percent reduction. The VA also said the accuracy of the decisions on disability claims has improved.

VA Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey said that a paperless system, better training of claims workers and improved communications systems not only have helped reduce the backlog but also set up a system to prevent future backlogs. 

The news was certainly welcomed by Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.  “The VA has assured me that it is on track to eliminate by the end of next year what everyone agrees have been unacceptable delays in processing claims,” Sanders said. “I welcome the progress that has been made and I intend to continue working with the VA to make sure that goal is achieved.”

Legislation proposed by Sanders would require quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate a backlog by the end of 2015.  VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.

The VA Backlog Working Group, a group of senators who meet regularly to brainstorm VA reforms, released a report in March which analyzed the many factors that contributed to the backlog.  Chairs of the VA Backlog Working Group, Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Dean Heller, R-Nev., along with Sens. David Vitter, R-La., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., have introduced the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act, legislation designed to reduce the claims backlog.

“The backlog has been a persistent and inexcusable problem,” said Sen. Casey. “Our Nation’s heroes shouldn’t have to wait for months or more for their claims to be addressed.  It is unacceptable that some veterans in Pennsylvania have waited a year or longer to get their disability claims processed, such as 345 days in Pittsburgh and 309 days in Philadelphia.  Veterans deserve a comprehensive and permanent solution to this problem, and our hope is that this legislation will ensure we reach that goal.”

Details of the 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act:

Title I – Benefits Claims Submission.  This section is designed to encourage, assist, and educate veterans on the benefits of submitting a completed claim, when possible, as well as reinforce the services available to help a veteran complete a claim.

§  Includes proposals to improve veterans’ access to information about the claims process;

§  Provides Veterans Service Organizations and veterans’ preferred secondary contact with better access to information;

§  Authorizes monetary benefits to incentivize developed claims submission.

Title II - Reforming Practices of Regional Offices.  Personnel and management must be given tools to perform efficiently. This section requires the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to make structural changes that increase accuracy and efficiency at the regional office level in the following ways:

§  Calls for audit of regional offices of the Veterans Benefits Administration;

§  Ensures improved accountability and oversight of VARO management;

§  Provides resources to VBA employees and implements changes in process that allows VBA employees to move claims through the electronic benefits awards structure more efficiently;

§  Improves transparency to the public on the size and scope of the current backlog.

Title III - Government Response. This section holds the government accountable and helps to ensure the claims process is a priority.

§  Demands greater cooperation from federal agencies to transfer requested information;

§  Presses VBA employees to process information it receives from these agencies in a timely fashion.