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Opening Statement of The Honorable Bill Flores, Chairman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity

Good morning and the Subcommittee will come to order.  I want to begin by thanking my good friend Mr. Takano for participating in the two field hearings we held last week in Riverside, CA, and Waco, TX. I know I found them to be very informative and I thank the Ranking Member for his assistance in making them a great success.

We are here today to conduct oversight over the Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VR&E) service’s independent living program.  This program provides a wide array of services to the most severely wounded and disabled veterans who have disabilities that preclude them from working, but can still use VA’s services to help them achieve a higher level of independent daily living.

Our hearing today will focus on three major objectives:

  • The results of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Independent Living Program that this Subcommittee requested last Congress;
  • VA’s steps to implement the recommendations of this report and other steps they are taking to improve the performance of the I.L. program; and
  • The view of this program at the local level from our veteran service organization partners, and how they believe we can better assist our most severely disabled veterans achieve maximum daily living.

While I am encouraged that the recent GAO found that 89% of the veterans in their study eventually completed their independent living plans, they also found that there is a need for increased oversight over this program. 

For example, when VA is unable to track simple performance metrics like counting, in real time, the number of veterans in the independent living program or provide an aggregate number of the types of benefits being provided to veterans through the program… something is wrong.

I don’t fault VA Central Office staff for many of these problems.  I believe many of these issues stem from the lack of attention and resources that are provided to the VR&E service by the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA).

GAO found that VR&E’s computer tracking system is in serious need of an upgrade, but as GAO has mentioned in their written statement, VR&E officials don’t expect to receive the funding needed for this upgrade for another 3 years.

While I know that VBA is transfixed on improvements to the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) to bring down the disability backlog, they can’t continue to drop the ball and lose sight of the fact that other important programs that serve our veterans need assistance as well.

We saw this earlier this year with our hearing on the Long Term Solution for G.I. Bill benefits, where a simple investment could finish the job once and for all, but resources were transferred to disability backlog. 

Congress has never turned down VA’s request for funding to improve computer systems, which will help veterans and strengthen oversight.  I hope to learn more about VA’s plans to update their systems today.

One other area that GAO discussed in their report is the need to review cost controls and approval authority for large expenses within the independent living program.

This point was crystallized by the revelation that VA Central office review was not needed for a VR&E officer at the local level to authorize $17,500 for the purchase of a glass-pro fishing boat, motor, and trailer for a disabled veteran.

I understand that learning to fish can certainly improve a veteran’s independence and quality of life, but I think we can all think of better ways to teach veterans this skill than purchasing a $17,500 boat.

I believe that this program has the ability to greatly improve the lives of veterans, but more work needs to be done to ensure efficiency and improve performance.

With that, I recognize the Ranking Member for his opening remarks.