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Opening Statement of Hon. Bob Filner Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of California

The Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will come to order.  I would like to thank the Members of the Committee, our witnesses, and all those in the audience for being here today.

On October 7, 2001, almost exactly six years ago, we commenced military operations in Afghanistan, and this coming March will be the four year anniversary of the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. 

1.6 million servicemembers have been deployed.  According to the Defense Manpower Data Center, as of Saturday, 4, 261 have died and 29, 958 have been wounded.  Sadly, these numbers increase nearly every day.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly half of those deployed have separated from the active component or have become eligible for VA care as reservists.  One-third of these have sought VA medical care since 2002.

As the VA is facing increased demand from an aging veterans’ population, it must also meet the challenges of caring for servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In VA’s budget submission for FY 2008, it estimated that it will treat 5.8 million veterans out of an enrolled population of 7.9 million.  There are approximately 24 million veterans alive today.  VA estimated that it will treat 263,345 OEF/OIF patients.

We are concerned with the extent of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries among our returning servicemembers.  We are concerned over the ability to treat these veterans in the coming years while not forgetting the needs of veterans from previous conflicts. 

We wish to learn not only what these costs might be, but what the VA is doing -- planning-wise -- to meet all the challenges it faces not only today, but in the coming years.

We are also faced with a crisis when it comes to disability claims, with a backlog of claims that numbers more than 400,000.  We must address this crisis not only for our returning servicemembers, but for all of our veterans who are seeking benefits and having to wait longer and longer for a decision. 

CRS estimates that we have provided over $600 billion so far for Iraq, Afghanistan, and other costs associated with the War on Terror, a figure that equals 90 percent of what we spent in Vietnam over a 12-year period and double the cost of the Korean War.  CBO estimates that it may cost $7 to $9 billion over the next decade to provide health care for our returning servicemembers, and roughly $3 to $4 billion for disability compensation and survivors’ benefits.

Our hearing today will explore the costs we have incurred so far, and begin the process of exploring the costs we may face in the future.  We also look to the VA to provide us with the estimates they have made, and, more importantly, what extra steps they are taking today, if any, to meet the needs of our returning servicemembers in terms of infrastructure, staffing, and the provision of health care and benefits over the coming years. 

We look forward to an informative hearing, and a frank exchange.  We wish to thank Mr. Goldberg and Ms. Belasco on our first panel for coming before us today to provide us with the background we need to begin this discussion, and we thank Dr. Kussman and Admiral Cooper for joining us to give us the VA’s perspective on this important topic.

I believe that once we know the costs we must incur to care for our veterans, that this Congress, and the American people, will gladly bear the burden. 

No matter where we stand on the war in Iraq, we all stand together in our desire to make sure that our returning servicemembers get the health care they need, and the benefits they have earned.  We cannot fund the war, but fail to fund the warriors.