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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs

Good morning everyone, it is truly an honor to be here today with you, and with so many members of your organizations.  I am pleased to welcome you and to join with members of the House and Senate committees on veterans’ affairs to hear from our distinguished guests, as they present your legislative priorities. These individuals, and the organizations they represent, possess a wealth of information that is used to improve the lives of our veterans.  The work these groups perform and the expertise they provide help ensure veterans, and the men and women of our Armed Forces, have the care, benefits, and opportunities they deserve when they come home.

I am honored in my position as Chairman to work in concert with your groups.  While every organization here today has its own legislative priorities, you all share a common goal, one that these committees share as well: Providing the best services to our veterans, to those service-members who will one day transition out of the military, and to surviving family members.  We have made great strides to meet that goal, but there is still much work to be done.

As we enter this session, we must continue to place emphasis upon ensuring that veterans receive timely, accurate, and consistent decisions when seeking service-connected disability compensation.  We must also focus upon ensuring that veterans receive prompt, safe and high-quality health care. In advancing these issues, the need for oversight is crucial, but it is the need for accountability that is paramount.  So, I would like to take a moment to talk about a measure that I recently introduced --- H.R.  4031, The VA Management Accountability Act of 2014.

This legislation would give VA secretary Eric Shinseki, and future VA Secretaries, complete authority to terminate or demote VA senior executive service, or equivalent employees, based on poor performance.  The existing red tape involved in that process makes it virtually impossible to hold v-a executives accountable in a timely manner…and it is indisputable that accountability is needed.

I would also like to take a moment to highlight a few other pieces of legislation that many of you have supported, which are moving through the legislative process.  First, along with Ranking Member Michaud, I was proud to introduce H.R.  357, the GI Bill Tuition Fairness Act of 2014.

This common sense legislation will decrease the cost of education, strengthen the transitional assistance program, and increase access to vocational rehabilitation and employment; it also aims to improve services that would reduce homelessness within the veteran community. 

Additionally, I was proud to introduce H.R.  813, the Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013. While the Veterans Health Administration is largely shielded from budgetary impasse, other functions critical to the department, and to veterans, are not.  These include accounts that fund all of VA’s benefits programs, information technology, as well as for construction spending on vital maintenance and improvement projects.  The passage of this measure is crucial, as the possibility of future political gridlock must not compromise the functionality of the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I thank many of you for your support on this.

And, finally, I would like to highlight H.R.  2189, which has passed out of the House.  This bill contains many provisions designed to improve VA’s processing of service-connected disability benefits.  To that end, I wish to highlight one provision in particular that would create a commission or task force to independently analyze both the backlog of disability claims, and the backlog of appeals.  VA’s work on the claims backlog must be conducted with the big picture in mind, and that is to reduce the backlog without sacrificing quality.  Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the case.  What we are seeing in VA’s execution of its “strategic plan” is simply the redistribution of attention and resources to compensation claims, forsaking quality for quantity, in an organizational scramble to meet an artificial 2015 goal.  To meet the secretary’s timeline,  VA has deemed certain categories of claims to be exceptions to the department’s goal.  As a result, the numbers of dependency claims, non-rating actions, appeals, and accrued benefits continue to rise within their own backlogs at alarming rates.  What we need is a comprehensive and thoughtful strategy to all claims and appeals, which is what H.R.  2189 is designed to achieve.  I ask for your continued support as this measure is considered by the Senate. 

I look forward to today’s testimony and our continued collaboration in doing what is right for our nation’s veterans.