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Opening Statement of Hon. Cliff Stearns, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today on the Fiscal Year 2008 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I thank Secretary Nicholson and our Veterans Service Organizations for being here. 

First I would like to take a moment to compliment the Secretary for the Department’s handling last year of the data breach incident.  The Department responded quickly and effectively to the crisis to protect the identities of many veterans, averting what could have been an even greater breach of privacy. 

I would also like to say that we have worked well in the past with the Secretary on issues that are critical to veterans, increasing the number of clinics and working to bring a new veteran’s cemetery to the Jacksonville area.  I am very pleased that one of your three highest priorities you have mentioned previously is to “ensure the burial needs of veterans and their eligible family members are met, and maintain veterans’ cemeteries as national shrines.”  I was very pleased that the President authorized 6 new VA cemeteries Veterans’ Day 2004, including my over a decade-old bill for a VA cemetery in North Central Florida. 

I am pleased with the progress we have made on these issues, and look forward to more opportunities for collaboration.  Florida is a premier retirement area for our nation’s veterans, with one of the highest numbers of veterans in its population, so naturally I am very interested in hearing suggestions for improvements from Secretary Nicholson.

Mr. Secretary, I am greatly concerned about the claims backlog that is inhibiting the ability of veterans to receive benefits.  It is an issue that we have worked on in the past, and it is my hope that we will accomplish much in this area through close collaboration with your Department in the coming year.

I stand firmly behind the President in his strengthening of the VA for today’s veterans.  Taking care of veterans disabled by their service, and without other means, is a national commitment we must honor.

I appreciate our veterans that are here today. I know that many of you travel great distances to come before us, and we are grateful to see you.

Thank you again, Chairman Filner for the opportunity to hear our panelists, and examine the budget.