Letter to the Hon. Robert McDonald, Secretary, Department of Veterans Affairs - Grant Read-Only Access to Congressional Offices Working to Help Veterans


Dear Secretary McDonald,

As members of Congress, helping our veterans receive the benefits and care they so rightfully deserve is one of our top priorities. While the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has made progress in reducing the veterans' claims backlog, we continue to believe that more needs to be done to advance a VA policy regarding congressional access to veterans' electronic claims files- CITRIX, MAP-D, SHARE, VBMS, VACOLS, and Virtual VA.

As you are aware, at the present time, only VA staff, certified lawyers, and Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) have permission to access these files. While we appreciate the complexity and concerns that have been raised regarding privacy, legal, and regulatory issues, as well as information technology system security limitations, we are confident that the combined efforts of the VA and Congress can adequately address and alleviate these potential barriers. By working in a collaborative manner on this issue we will help improve service to veterans and their families - a goal we can agree we share.

In previous correspondences, your office informed us that in order to provide even limited access to electronic claims files to congressional staff, the VA would have to transfer the access of other representatives currently utilizing the system: VSO service officers, private attorneys, and VA claims agents. According to your office, this would be necessary because the "system" is currently only capable of providing access to a single representative at a time. In our combined experience, by the time a constituent advocate begins working on a veteran's case they are the only staff working the issue because all other avenues have been exhausted. Given that our staffs are typically contacted in many cases as a last resort -- after having first sought help from the VA or a service officer - to help veterans navigate significant issues they are facing at the VA, we request further information clarifying why congressional offices continue to be denied access.

Additionally, while the VA has indicated that it is working hard to expand veterans' on-line self-service capabilities we are concerned with the turn-around time of this project and the impact it will have on veterans currently awaiting a claims judgement. Could you please provide an update on the progress of this initiative, as well as detail how the VA intends to assist veterans who lack access to a personal computer or broadband? Could you also address if the VA intends to hold training seminars to explain the program to older veterans who may have difficulty navigating online systems without assistance?

Finally, we are also requesting a status update on the proposed user-centered design sessions that had been discussed as a means to bring together member offices, veterans, VA privacy and security experts, and policy staff to workshop possible solutions that would meet both our needs to provide constituent services and uphold privacy protection laws. We urge the VA to establish a timeline for such sessions to take place in the very near future. This is an issue that simply can no longer be delayed.

We look forward to your timely response and continued engagement on this issue. In the meantime, our offices will be exploring legislative action that Congress can take to help initiate the necessary changes to ensure our veterans' needs are being met. Thank you for your time and attention regarding these critical issues.