Secretary Hagel Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on the Veterans Affairs Claims Backlog with the Senate Appropriations Committee as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Washington D.C., Wednesday, May 22, 2013

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Senator Mikulski, members of the committee, thank you for this opportunity to address an important issue, and for your strong commitment to our service members, veterans, and their families.

I want to also thank my friend and colleague Secretary Shinseki for his leadership and tireless efforts on behalf of our veterans and their families.

I'm also joined by my DoD colleagues, the Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Jessica Wright, and Jim Neighbors, who directs our DoD/VA Collaboration Office. They have been deeply involved in the issues we will discuss today and have responsibility for the DoD programs and offices which directly relate to DoD's collaboration with VA.

DoD and VA both work to provide continuous, accessible quality health care for America's active duty military and its veterans. At DoD, our responsibility is ensure that those who are serving the country have quality care throughout their career. When a service member's status changes from active duty to veteran, DoD also has a responsibility to ensure these service members are seamlessly, efficiently, and quickly transitioned to the care of Veterans Affairs--including all of their records.

I have listened carefully to DoD's health care providers--its doctors, nurses, and clinicians at Walter Reed and other DoD health care facilities. I've asked them, what do you need to give our active duty military consistent and accessible quality health care? Their input is essential to ensuring quality care, because they are the providers and we must know what they need to ensure this care.

During the first Reagan Administration I was Deputy Administrator of the Veterans Administration and led efforts to computerize all claims of our veterans, especially our Vietnam veterans whose claims were often connected to Agent Orange exposure. So I understand and greatly appreciate Secretary Shinseki's leadership in expanding the availability of benefits for Vietnam veterans with service-connected diseases. Under his leadership, the VA has also made it easier for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress to qualify for benefits. He has also expanded the availability of benefits to Gulf War veterans.

As a former VA leader, Senator and veteran I have been involved in veterans issues for many years, and have some understanding and appreciation of the complications and difficulties of this backlog issue. One difficulty is that the majority of the backlog numbers represents veterans who served prior to Iraq and Afghanistan. Meaning that veterans records from as far back as World War II are many times not available, or easily accessible, or have been lost.

The Department of Defense is committed to doing everything it can to continue to work with the VA in processing claims speedily and efficiently to reduce this backlog. To address and help fix this problem, DoD has recently initiated several important actions:

   In January, DoD sent a team of experts to work in the Veterans
   Benefits Administration. This team is working side by side with VBA
   personnel to analyze the disability claims backlog and assist VA in
   processing claims.

   DoD recently began to provide VBA personnel with the ability to log
   in directly to our electronic medical records system, AHLTA, so
   that VA can process claims more quickly than under the current
   system for transferring records. …