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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, House Committee on Veteran Affairs

Chairman Jeff Miller

October 9, 2013

Effect of Government Shutdown on VA Benefits and Services to Veterans

Good morning.  This hearing will come to order.  Before we begin I’d like to ask Unanimous Consent for the gentleman from California, and former Member of this Committee, Mr. Jerry NcNerney to join us at the dais.  Hearing no objection, so ordered.

Mr. Secretary, welcome.  I appreciate you being here on short notice.  

We’re here today to understand how veterans are being impacted by the lapse in appropriation that has led to the government shutdown.  There is plenty of blame to go around as to why we’re in this position, but that’s not why I called this hearing.  Put simply, we’re looking for the best information possible on what all of this means for veterans.  

Veterans want to know whether their disability checks and GI Bill benefits will be paid on November 1 and thereafter.  They want to know if their disability claims will be decided or further delayed.  Families want to know if their loved ones will receive a timely burial at a VA national cemetery.   And many of VA’s employees want to know whether they’ll be serving veterans on the job, or whether they’ll be furloughed.

I understand that the answers to some of these questions are entirely dependent on how long this shutdown lasts.  And although I want it to be over quickly, it is our responsibility to ensure that the public, especially veterans, understand precisely what the current state of play is. 

Mr. Secretary, we’ve had some difficulty in the last couple of weeks getting good information about VA’s contingency plan and the effects a lapse in appropriation would have on veterans.  For example:

  • First, the original field guide VA put out regarding the shutdown’s impact at first spoke of no effect on payments to veterans or processing of their benefits.  But in a later version, VA stated that a prolonged shutdown would impact both, but didn’t provide precise details as to how. 
  • Second, the Veterans Health Administration is not shutdown at all because it received its full year appropriation for 2014 back in March.  So, hospitals, clinics, and Vet Centers should all be open for business.  Yet the President made a statement the day before the shutdown saying that veterans “will find their support centers unstaffed,” and implying that counseling services for veterans with PTSD would be affected.
  • Third, this Committee has consistently been told that VBA’s mandatory overtime effort towards the backlog would end on September 30.  Yet days into the shutdown, we were informed that the shutdown prevented VA’s planned continued payment of overtime.
  • Fourth, although a shutdown should have a relatively uniform effect across all Regional Offices as suggested by VA’s field guide, my staff met with several representatives from the veterans’ organizations last week who relayed that their members are hearing mixed messages out of different Regional Offices.

I want to be clear that none of this is ideal.  Some degree of confusion is to be expected. VA employees should be worrying about VA’s mission of service to veterans, not planning for furloughs or managing an agency on spare change remaining from last year.   

However, what can never be expected is anything less than the full truth, as best as it is known.  This grave situation does not need to be assisted by misleading statements designed to aid a political argument by any party.    It’s my hope that we can uphold the best traditions of this Committee and rise above all of that today. 

Mr. Secretary, thank you for your willingness to join us in that effort.   Since this hearing was called last Friday we’ve had a bit more clarity on some of these issues we have been asking your staff about for the last ten days, but I thought the public should hear that same information.

One last point before I conclude. Last July we held a hearing on a bill the Ranking Member and I introduced that proposed to advance fund the entire VA discretionary budget.  The Administration declined to take a position on the bill, saying instead it needed to conduct a review first.   It is obvious that no review is necessary given where we are today.   Mr. Secretary, I sincerely hope that you are making that case within the Administration, and I’ll follow up with you on that point during questioning. 

I now recognize the Ranking Member for his statement.