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

I would like to thank the Members of the Committee, Secretary Nicholson, and all those in the audience, for being here today.  The VA is the second largest agency in the Federal government, and one of the most essential.  For the way in which we treat our veterans has a direct impact on our ability to recruit men and women in the future, and is a reflection of the values and ideals we hold as a nation. 

The VA, with more than 245,000 employees, oversees the largest integrated health care system in the country and a vast array of benefits programs meant to compensate, however inadequately, the service and sacrifice of our 25 million veterans.  And every day, driven by the pressure of new conflicts, the VA is asked to do more and more.

Robert Kennedy, in his famous “Day of Affirmation Speech” in South Africa, stated that “there is a Chinese curse which says ‘may he live in interesting times.’”  Secretary Nicholson’s tenure at the VA may indeed be fairly characterized as an “interesting time.”

The VA has faced a $2 billion budget shortfall, a growing claims backlog, and a data breach involving 26.5 million veterans and active duty personnel, as well as an incident earlier this year in Birmingham, Alabama.  The VA has made strides toward meeting its goal of being the “gold standard” in IT security, but much work remains to be done.

The VA is facing the issue of caring for our returning servicemembers, and the veterans of previous conflicts.  The VA must rise to the challenge of meeting the needs of these veterans, especially in the areas of TBI care and PTSD treatment, maintaining its excellence in specialized services, and addressing access to care issues.  These are challenges that we have worked on together, and that you will leave to your successor, but challenges we must meet as a nation.

The VA health care system has also been lauded during the Secretary’s tenure, for the excellence of its care, its innovative electronic medical records system, and its response to emergencies and disasters.  Indeed, the VA health care system is often used as a model.

Mr. Secretary, today, we hope to hear your views on your time at the VA, the challenges that face us in the future, and any guidance you can give us.  We would like to hear how we can improve health care and benefits for our veterans, while fully addressing quality, access, and timeliness issues. 

We would like to hear the progress the VA has made in working more closely with the Department of Defense in addressing the recommendations made in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal.  And we hope to hear about the transition plans the Department has in place to make sure leadership is provided at the highest levels for our veterans.

We, on this Committee, wish to thank you Mr. Secretary, as well as the employees of the VA, for the devotion to veterans that you all demonstrate day after day.  On a personal note, I also wish to take a moment to thank you. 

Over the course of this year we put aside our past differences and have worked closely together to help veterans.  And at the end of the day, regardless of our differences, that is what we are all here to do.