On March 30, Congressman Chris Pappas (NH-01), Chair of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC), led a Subcommittee legislative hearing on legislation to strengthen Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) accountability, improve financial management, ensure veteran and Department employee diversity, equity, and inclusion, and protect agency whistleblowers.
Bills discussed included Pappas's legislation to speed delivery of VA benefits to veterans' survivors and his legislation to improve oversight of VA's Community Care Program.
"These bills would strengthen accountability, fairness, and oversight at the Department of Veterans Affairs. All are based on the ongoing work of the Subcommittee to delve into the many corners of VA. They address the problems that veterans face across the nation or that have stymied the Department's work for many years," said Congressman Pappas in his opening remarks. "Through congressional oversight spanning several years, we have learned that the "Faster Payments to Veterans' Survivors Act' is needed to ensure more timely payments owed to families after the death of a veteran. This financial support is often an important lifeline to families during a time of sadness and need."
Pappas added, "the bill I have authored with Ranking Member Mann, the "Improving Oversight of the Veterans Community Care Providers Act,' is based on findings and recommendations by the Government Accountability Office. It would take several critical steps to ensure that health care providers in VA's Community Care program meet the program's high standards of eligibility."
Witnesses at the hearing included representatives from VA, the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and representatives from four Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs).
During the hearing, Pappas secured a commitment from VA to continue to work together to speed delivery of VA benefits to veterans' survivors:
Chair Pappas: "Mr. Keenaghan, I would like to start with my bill that aims to ensure timely survivor payments when a veteran passes away. According to information we've requested from the Department, at the end of FY 2020, VA owed more than $245 million to tens of thousands of veterans' survivors and beneficiaries. I understand it can be difficult to track down someone whose address or name has changed, but I am also mindful of the financial hardship many families face when a loved one dies and the need to pay these families the money they are owed. What more can be done to identify, locate, and pay these hard-to-reach survivors and beneficiaries?"
Mr. Keenaghan, Executive Director of the VA Insurance Service: "VA is supportive of the Faster Payments To Veterans' Survivors Act and efforts to encourage prompt payment of life insurance and recommend expanding some of the provisions across all VA insurance programs."
Chair Pappas: "I'm just wondering if we can have your commitment to continue to work together on realizing some of the improvements you identified in the legislation, and do that in an expeditious fashion?
Mr. Keenaghan: "Yes sir, happy to work with your staff on technical assistance to achieve your intent."
Pappas also pressed VA to improve their oversight of VA's Community Care Program:
Chair Pappas: "Mr. Bagdoyan, I was pleased to see that VA concurred or at least concurred in principle with all 10 recommendations GAO made in its December report, which identified approximately 1,600 health care providers who were ineligible to participate in the Community Care program. It appears VA has taken some steps to address the recommendations. So, in your view, why might legislation still be needed? Also, what are the risks to VA and the veterans it serves if ineligible providers are allowed to remain in the Department's Community Care networks?"
Mr. Bagdoyan, Director of Forensic Audits and Investigative Service, GAO: "VA is in the process of implementing our recommendations We expect more detail from the Department sometime in July in terms of specific actions. I believe the Subcommittee's bill could do two things. First, it would provide additional impetus for quick and decisive action and the second part of your question: we're talking about risks to the safe care of veterans where there is no margin for error in this regard. And in terms of one ineligible provider who could cause harm to a veteran, that's essentially one too many."
Chair Pappas: "Well, let me see what kind of a progress report I can get right now. Ms. Adams, maybe I can turn to you and just ask what VA has done in the three months since the GAO report was released and if you're confident that all 1,600 ineligible providers GAO identified have been deactivated at this point?"
Ms. Adams, Executive Director, Network Management, Office of Community Care: "As Mr. Bagdoyan said it is a laborious intensive manual review process. So we are continuing to undergo the process that review is still ongoing and we hope to complete that within the next several weeks and have greater information to be able to provide."