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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, Chairman Scott, and all those in the audience for being here today.

Chairman Scott, let me begin by saying that you, your staff and the experts on whom you have relied have done a yeoman’s job in producing this report and you have honored the call to duty.   

After convening over 50 public business sessions with interested stakeholders, the final report is a culmination of two years of assessing of our nation’s system of compensation and assistance for veterans and their survivors and dependents.

Your mission was an arduous and daunting one--to examine the way our benefits systems operate and to provide recommendations on how to make the delivery of these benefits and services work better-- in a way that represents the tremendous sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have made.  

As most in this room know, the Commission is a construct of Congress, conceived in the Defense Reauthorization Act of 2004.  Borne primarily out of recognition of the impact that the current conflicts of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom would have on VA/DoD resources, it was our hope that you would provide recommendations to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of providing benefits and services to our veterans and their dependents and survivors in a manner that truly reflects the dignity of their service to our country.

To do this, you had the wisdom to know that not only would you need to commission studies by the IOM and the Center for Naval Analysis Corporation, but that you would need to be multi-prospective--looking to the past, present and future--to try to fix a system that has suffered from serious internal flaws for decades.  So you took a look at the collection of good ideas that have accumulated over the years, from those contained in the Bradley report, to Dole-Shalala and the President’s Commission Reports, and numerous IOM and Center for Naval Analysis reports, to inform your 114 recommendations. 

After the discovery of the conditions at Walter Reed and the many reports on the growing backlog at the VA, there are now many resources and ideas for the VA to tap about how to best administer its benefits and health care programs.  But this report is unique, because it synthesizes these great ideas to provide a roadmap for moving forward. 

I believe that just as we did in the 90’s when Congress, the Administration, VSOs, veteran advocate organizations and other stakeholders, partnered to place greater emphasis on turning the VHA into a world-class, technologically-adept entity, we must devote the same resources and brain power to turning around the VBA.  It must become a world-class, technologically adept, 21st Century organization. 

I look forward to working with the leadership of the VA to making this a reality.  Needless to say, we must also apply this same brain power and energy to perfecting seamless transition. 

As we continue to give full resources to the war, let us not forget the warrior and the warrior’s family.  Our men and women should not get first class weapons to fight only to receive third-class benefits after fighting.  We must continue on a path to making the benefits provided to our veterans first-rate and uncompromised.

I will not belabor this point, but the current waiting periods at all levels in the VA disability benefits system, from 177 days at the regional office to 751 days at the VBA or 240 days at the CAVC, are all unacceptable.  These waiting times became exacerbated to the point of unmanageability due to the funding shortfalls over the past 10 years.  But I firmly believe that they belie a system that is girded by dedicated and professional employees committed to our veterans. 

I was looking at the VA’s website recently, and I came across the Veterans Benefits Administration’s (VBA’s) covenant.  I do not need to tell any of you the significance and impact of entering into a covenant, so I wanted to share the VBA’s with this audience. 

It states that, “We are the leaders in one of our Nation’s most vital and idealistic service organizations.  Because we serve veterans and their dependents, our mission is sacred.  “It then goes on to quote both President Lincoln and General Omar Bradley; quotes which are posted in all VA offices:

"…to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan…" President Lincoln; March 4, 1865.  

"We are dealing with veterans, not procedures – with their problems, not ours."  General Omar Bradley; 1947.  

It further states, that, “As we carry out this mission, we willfully enter into a covenant with one another to always be guided by the fundamental principles of Accountability, Integrity, and Professionalism.  These principles form the foundation of Leadership and Service to America’s veterans.”

Today, I want all of us (all relevant stakeholders) to enter into a covenant to devote our collective resources, brainpower, willpower and manpower to improve the current system of delivery of VA benefits, one which will optimize outcomes for all of our nation’s veterans.    

I want us all to remain cognizant of the privilege we have in being able to devise the policies and administer the benefits for these brave and deserving men and women and their families. 

There is real sanctity in this privilege--we should always be mindful of whom we are serving.  I think this report is an important step on that journey and I look forward to hearing the Chairman’s testimony today.