Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough

U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims Fifteenth Judicial Conference
Washington, DC
April 8, 2022

Good morning, everyone. It’s an honor to join you for your 15th Judicial Conference.

Chief Judge Bartley, thanks for that kind introduction, thanks for inviting me, but most importantly, thank you for your dedication to serving Veterans, representing them, and winning cases for them in front of both VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals and this Court even before you graduated law school.

I imagine those experiences really moved you, because, since then, you’ve been tireless in helping make sure VA delivers Veterans the benefits and services they’ve earned and deserve. Your story is also a reminder that we really do stand on the shoulders of those who have inspired us, who blazed the paths we walk, who gave us direction and vision.

I’m especially thinking of great public servants like the late Judge Jonathan Steinberg whom you clerked for, and whose own life is an enduring example for all of us of deep devotion to Vets and service to the country. As a former VFW leader said of Judge Steinberg on his passing, “Jon will be missed by so many Veterans who never knew him, or what he did to help so many of them.”

And his legacy endures, not only in the living body of Veteran law precedents, but also in the work of his son, Drew Steinberg, who’s following in his father’s footsteps by serving Vets on our General Counsel team. Those kinds of legacies, those kinds of records of service are replicated over and over among this Court  and this audience, including by many of you who are Veterans yourselves, who defended this country in every branch of service and on battlefields from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, who now continue serving your fellow Veterans.

So, my deep thanks to everyone on the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and to all those working to help VA and this nation serve Veterans.

Now, yesterday and today you’ve heard from some VA experts: Chairman Mason, our Board judges and General Counsel attorneys, Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Diaz. So, I’ll just touch a few wavetops and then see if Judge Bartley wants to open the floor to some questions and discussion.

Back in November 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Veterans’ Judicial Review Act, opening the door on what was called, aptly, the Veterans Administration’s “splendid isolation” in benefits decisions. Just a few days before that, he’d signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, giving Vets, as he said, “what they have deserved for so long: a seat at the table in our national affairs” and creating the modern Department of Veterans Affairs.

When it comes to this country fulfilling its obligation to Veterans, those are arguably two of the most important laws since 1865 when President Lincoln signed legislation opening VA’s first facility in Togus, Maine. All of which is to say—being Irish, myself—this Court and Veterans Affairs, well, we’re like Irish Twins. We’ve grown up together these past three decades. And while the nature of litigation is adversarial, our relationship is not, because at the end of the day we are about the same thing.

President Biden describes it as our nation’s most sacred obligation to prepare and equip the troops we send into harm’s way, and then to care for them and their families when they return home. That’s what VA’s about. That’s what this Court and all of you are about.

Because when someone signs up to serve our country in the military, like so many of you did, this nation makes them a simple, but sacred, promise. You take care of us, we’ll take care of you. You fight for us, we’ll fight for you. You serve us, we’ll serve you when you come home. At VA, keeping that promise means delivering timely access to the world-class health care and benefits they’ve earned.

And we’re fighting like hell to do exactly that. And, in my view, all of you who argue for and represent Vets and their interests, all of you who collaborate, engage in mediation, work to get to the right answer for Vets, to find solutions that meet Vets’ needs instead of briefing to win every case—folks from our great VA attorneys to the Court’s Central Legal Staff—you’re all among our most important partners in this fight, helping make sure that VA, on behalf of the nation, fulfills that sacred obligation, keeps that promise to Vets.

It’s often difficult, complex in execution, and sometimes not as graceful as it could be, as it should be. But the concept, the mission is as simple and pristine as it is compassionate, and right.

Now, let me quickly hit on a few of the issues that are most relevant to our shared work.

First, I know there are challenges associated with the steady rise of Veteran disability comp and pen claims over the last several years, and challenges associated with the growing complexities of those claims. Let me tell you, VBA people are doing great work tackling those challenges, head-on. They’ve already processed 825,000 claims this year, the fastest pace in history. And, looking ahead, we have our work cut out for us.

I know Chris [Diaz] shared what we’re doing for Vets on toxic exposure, and I testified to the Senate on the PACT Act last week. Well, we support the bill, for many reasons, including that it helps VA accomplish a priority goal: getting more Vets into VA care, because study after study shows that Vets in VA care do better. And getting Veterans access to the benefits, services, and care they deserve is going to require resources to process the nearly 2.5 million more claims the bill’s going to mean by the end of FY23.

So, we’re preparing for that and to continue processing claims faster than ever before.

Second, I want to note that last year at the Board, even as the pandemic moved everyone to remote, virtual work, we received nearly twice as many appeals as we did just four years ago—a number, by the way, that’s projected to continue to increase. And our Board and its judges are doing great work. They dispatched nearly 100,000 decisions last year. And they’re driving a steady growth in the number of hearings they’re holding, on track for over 102,000 this year. With virtual tele-hearings, we blew away obstacles for Vets accessing hearings. And the Board now has the capacity to hold 50,000 virtual hearings annually. They’ve already handed down 46,000 decisions in what we expect will be another record-setting year. And, with that broad increase in both volume and pace, the Board’s appeal rate to the Court has held pretty steady at around 8% of Board decisions.

Third, the FY22 Omnibus that President Biden signed into law mid-March was great news for the Veterans we serve, and the work VBA and the Board are doing for them. Among so much else, it means VBA can automate disability claims processing, keep reducing the claims backlog, and deliver over $150 billion in earned benefits to more than 6 million Veterans, service members, survivors, and dependents. 

It means the Board of Veterans’ Appeals can hire about 200 people. And it provided targeted overtime and investments in other services that will deliver results to Vets and their families.

And finally—fourth—the President’s FY23 budget proposal is more great news for Veterans. The topline number is $301.4 billion. But here’s what that number really means when it comes to fulfilling our promise to Veterans.

For the Board, it’s 12 more Veterans Law Judges, 151 more decision-writing attorneys, and 93 appellate operational support and administrative staff. That means a 15% increase in appeals decisions, a 57% reduction in legacy appeals to get us down to about 21,000 pending by the end of FY23, greater capacity to decide more AMA appeals, nearly 4,000 caregiver decisions, and about an 11% increase in the number of hearings we’ll hold.

It means health care for 9.2 million Vets. It means disability and survivors benefits for six million Vets and their families. And it means a lasting resting place for an estimated 135,000 heroes and family members. So, what that number really means is Veterans’ lives saved, or improved, by the work that funding makes possible.

But here’s the big point. In the final analysis, this shouldn’t be a numbers discussion. Our work isn’t about numbers. It’s about people; about Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors; about making sure this country keeps its promise to them.

Take Jose, for example, a Vietnam Veteran who came back to his home in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1972. Less than three weeks later, he was an inpatient at the San Juan VA, having a hard time, struggling with PTSD.

Well, Jose filed his disability claim. But his claim was denied. So, he appealed the decision. But his appeal was denied, too. That was before Vets had this Court, and before we knew all we do today about PTSD.

Well, over the decades, Jose was in and out of VA hospitals and home care because of his mental health challenges. But then he got into contact with a Veterans Service Officer, and that changed everything. A Trumbull County, Ohio, Service Officer reviewed Jose’s file—a Service Officer who may very well have been trained or mentored by somebody in this room. And the Service Officer found errors, found places where Jose’s evidence hadn’t been processed correctly.

So, they put together the medical evidence the right way for the first time since Vietnam, and VA quickly granted Jose his disability, 100% disability, at that. And here’s the rest of that story. After the Service Officer helped Jose file a successful appeal and get his 100% rating, he also helped Jose appeal the effective date. After four decades, Jose got the benefits he earned and so rightly deserved, that he’d been owed since 1972.

Now, Jose’s appeal didn’t get to this Court. But it’s his kind of story that perfectly exemplifies the importance of your work. Because for so many Veterans, you are just about their last chance for the benefits they’ve earned and deserve. And, therefore, you are our country’s last chance to get it right, and to do right by those Veterans.

Listen, when we make an error applying the law and regulations in a claim decision, we’ve failed a Vet. And your work helps Veterans hold us accountable. So, it bears repeating: there is nothing more important than that, because Vets’ outcomes drive everything we do. Vets, not us at VA, are the ultimate judges of our success. And when it comes to making sure they have access to every, single benefit and service they’ve earned, that they’re owed, that are rightly theirs, this Court is instrumental. Because, for many Veterans like Jose, you are their last chance. And, therefore, you are our last chance at VA to do right by them.

So, thank you for your magnificent work for Veterans, for working with us on our common challenges associated with the Court’s and VA’s increased workload in recent years, for working with us to remand cases where there’s been a flaw in the process or a legal error, for helping ensure Veterans get all the process and benefits they’re entitled to. And we thank you for sharing in our common mission of keeping this country’s promise to Veterans.

God bless all of you, our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors.

And, together, may we always give them, as you do, our very best.

Chief Judge Bartley, would you like to open the floor?