Opening Statement of Senator Carl Levin Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee Joint Hearing on DOD and VA Disability Rating Systems and Transition of Service Members from DOD to the VA

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees meet together this morning to consider the complex and inconsistent disability rating systems of the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and the problems relative to transition of service members from the military to the VA.

Our nation has a moral obligation to provide quality health care to the men and women who put on our nations uniform and are injured and wounded fighting our nations wars. This obligation extends from the point of injury, through evacuation from the battlefield, to medical facilities operated by the military services and the VA. Our responsibility ends only when the wounds are healed. Where the wounds will never heal, our obligation extends throughout the lifetime of the veteran. I am sad to say that we as a nation are not meeting this obligation.

I welcome our witnesses here today: Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England; Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Dr. David Chu; VA Under Secretary for Benefits, Daniel Cooper; Acting Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren ; Acting Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health for VA, Dr. Gerald Cross; and Chairman of the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission Lieutenant General James Scott.

We have called this unusual joint hearing of the Veterans Affairs and Armed Services Committees because there are gaps and inconsistencies between the VA and DOD systems that need to be addressed jointly, and because our Committees have a shared responsibility to authorize funding for the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs and to oversee their efforts to provide proper care and treatment of service members wounded in military service. At present, as service members transition from the military to the VA, they face hurdles and roadblocks no veteran should face.

Disability ratings by the military services are inconsistent with disability ratings by the VA; ratings for similar disabilities vary widely between the military services; and, for some disabilities, the ratings do not accurately reflect the impact of the disability on the members ability to function in an information age society. These programs are not only complex and difficult to navigate, service members often feel like they have to fight for a rating that accurately reflects their disability, i.e., the service they belong to and put on the uniform of acts as their adversary. We simply have to do better than this. The cracks between the military and VA delivery systems must be filled. The transition must be smoothed out. The differences must be removed. The adversarial aspects must also be removed.

The militarys disability rating is extremely important to the lives of our wounded warriors and their families. Those with disabilities rated at 30% or higher are medically retired, entitling them and their families to healthcare for life through the militarys TRICARE health care program, a military pension, and access to commissary and post exchange benefits. Those whose disabilities are rated less than 30% are given a medical separation with severance pay. Although these service members whose disabilities are rated at less than 30% are eligible to receive health care through the VA, their families are not. The VA disability rating is equally as important because the amount of VA disability compensation is based on the VA disability rating.

I recently talked to a soldier at Walter Reed who had been injured by an IED blast while on his second tour of duty in Iraq. He understands that he is no longer physically fit for military duty because of the seriousness of his injuries. He receives care for his injuries in an outpatient status. He also is suffering from memory loss and believes that the Armys rating system will not take that problem into account. He told me that he is scared to death that the physical disability evaluation system will rate his disability at less than 30% and will put me out on the street without the ability to take care of his family, including his children. How can we, as a nation, ask our young men and women to serve, and when they are wounded while serving, put them in a position where they are scared to death that we will not take proper care of them and their families? Surely we must change such a system.

It also takes too long to get a disability rating from the VA. Veterans report that they have to wait months and months to get a VA disability rating before they can start receiving compensation for their disabilities. Currently, the VA has a backlog of approximately 400,000 cases and it takes an average of 177 days to rate a claim. When I visited the VA hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, veterans told me that there are several thousand claims that have been pending for an average of a year - a few years ago it was bad enough - the wait was 6 months.

Another problem reported by our service members is the lack of a smooth or seamless transition from the military to the VA. Many say that their military medical records are often not available to VA doctors. One veteran said that there is too much red tape, that it can take up to 22 documents with 8 different commands to exit the military medical system and enter the VA system. This exists even though there are numerous programs that are supposed to help the Veterans as they leave active duty, such as the Transition Assistance Program and the Benefits Delivery at Discharge Program. Despite these programs, the gaps and chasms remain.

This is not a new issue. In 2003, the Presidents Task Force to Improve Health Care For Our Nations Veterans made a series of recommendations to ease the transition from service member to veteran status, most of which recommendations have not been implemented. For example, this Task Force recommended that VA and DOD:

  • implement by fiscal year 2005 a mandatory single separation physical as a prerequisite of promptly completing the military separation process;
  • expand the one-stop shopping process to include, at a minimum, a standard discharge exam, full outreach, claimant counseling, and when appropriate, referral for a VA Compensation and Pension examination and follow-up claims adjudication and rating. Upon a service members separation, DOD should transmit an electronic DD 214 to VA; and
  • by fiscal year 2004, initiate a process for routine sharing of each service members assignment history, exposures to occupational hazards, location, and injuries information.

The disability rating issues and the transition challenges are currently under review by at least five different entities. The Army Inspector General recently completed an inspection of the Army Physical Disability Evaluation System, identifying numerous shortfalls in the Army system. The Secretary of Defense has established an Independent Review Group to identify shortcomings and opportunities to improve rehabilitative care, administrative processes and the quality of life of outpatients at Walter Reed and Bethesda hospitals. The report of this independent review group is due on April 16th.

The President established a bipartisan Presidential Commission on Care for Americas Returning Wounded Warriors. This Commission is to provide independent advice and recommendations on care provided to wounded servicemen and women from the time they leave the battlefield through their return to civilian life. The Commissions report is due on June 30th, with an option for an extension to July 31st. The President also created an inter-agency cabinet level Task Force on Returning Global War on Terror Heroes to identify and examine federal services provided to service members who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, to identify gaps in the services, and to ensure cooperation between federal agencies. The final report of this task force is due on June 30th.

Finally, the Veterans Disability Benefits Commission has been looking at these issues for some time. This Commissions report is due on October 1st. Im confident that General Scott will give us some insight into this Commissions observations thus far.

A preliminary report of the Secretary of Defenses Independent Review Group which proposed an acceleration of the closure of Walter Reed, describes the current system for assessing soldiers disabilities extremely cumbersome, inconsistent, and confusing, calling for a complete overhaul of the process. The findings and recommendations of all of these groups may be useful as we seek solutions to the problems confronting our wounded service members, but previous reports have been ignored. We shouldnt wait until they are all completed before we act.

The House has already acted and passed the Wounded Warrior Assistance Act of 2007, which would impose a number of new requirements on the Department of Defense to improve medical care and other services for service members and would require the Department of Defense and Veterans Administration to establish a single medical information system. Several bills have also been introduced in the Senate, including the Restoring Disability Benefits for Injured and Wounded Warrior Act of 2007 by Senator Clinton; the Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act of 2007 by Senators Obama, McCaskill and others; and the Effective Care for the Armed Forces and Veterans Act of 2007 by Senator Biden. All of these bills have been referred to the Senate Armed Services Committee where we will address them soon.

The American people are deeply angry about the shortfalls in care for our wounded veterans. The war in Iraq has divided our nation, but the cause of supporting our troops and our veterans unites us. We will do everything we possibly can do, not as Democrats or Republicans but as grateful Americans, to care for those who have served our nation with such honor and distinction an obligation which all Americans accept and insist be met to the fullest.