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Opening Statement of Hon. John J. Hall, Chairman, and a Representative in Congress from the State of New York

Good Morning,

I would ask everyone to rise for the Pledge of Allegiance – flags are located in the front and in the rear of the room.

I would first like to thank all of the witnesses for their testimonies on these seven non-controversial but critical bills, concerning memorial benefits, pensions, and the Department of Veterans Affairs’ claims processing system.  I would specifically like to thank my colleagues, Mr. Filner, Chairman of our Committee, Ranking Member Lamborn, Ms. Berkley,  Mr. Langevin and Mr. Brown, for joining us today.  I look forward to hearing their testimony on their respective legislation.

Four of the bills that we will consider today address the memorial assistance and death benefits provided to the families of our veterans.  At these times of grief, it is important that we honor our veterans’ service and sacrifice appropriately.

Due to the current deployment schedule of our active duty troops and the aging of our veterans from previous conflicts, it has become increasingly difficult to ensure military presence for proper honors details at veterans’ funerals.  The Providing Military Honors for our Nation’s Heroes Act, H.R. 3954, introduced by Chairman Filner, attempts to increase the number of details available to our veterans’ families and help ensure the proper honor is provided at veterans’ burials.  This legislation would authorize the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to reimburse volunteers from approved organizations for expenses incurred while providing these vital ceremonial duties. 

The Veterans Burial Benefits Improvement Act of 2007, H.R. 3249, introduced by my colleague from Nevada, Ms. Berkley, would increase burial allowances and plot allowances for both service connected and non-service connected veterans.  This legislation allows for annual adjustments to ensure that these benefits will continue to keep pace with rising funeral and burial costs, ensuring that all of our veterans can be interred in a proper and respectful manner.

H.R. 3415, introduced by Mr. Langevin, aims to assist family members of those buried in American Battle Monument Commission cemeteries abroad by providing them a remembrance of their loved one on U.S. soil.  As it may prove difficult for family members to travel to these overseas grave sites, this legislation would authorize memorial markers for this limited population of service members which could be placed in national veterans cemeteries closer to home.

Today, we will also consider the appropriateness of our current regulations regarding Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC).  H.R. 3286, also introduced by Chairman Filner, would shorten the time period for which a veteran must be rated continuously totally disabled immediately preceding his or her death before the veteran’s survivors are eligible for these benefits from 10 years to 1 year.  Given the current backlog in the VA’s claims processing system, veterans wait years, even decades, to receive their final rating.  In the case of totally disabled veterans, the resulting benefits may, unfortunately, come too late.  These delays should not negate our responsibility to these veterans’ families and this legislation will ensure that their survivors receive the benefits due to them.

We will also hear testimony on updating the special pension awarded to Medal of Honor recipients and their spouses.  H.R. 1137, introduced by Mr. Brown, would increase this special pension to $2,000 per month from $1,104.  This pension was last adjusted in 2006, but the acts of these extraordinary service members, currently 111, resulted in the receipt of our highest military honor, the benefits that we provide to them should reflect nothing less. 

Today we will also consider the VA Claims processing system and address two pieces of legislation that seek to make the process more efficient and effective for our nations’ veterans.

Ranking Member Lamborn introduced the Veterans Claims Processing Innovation Act of 2007, H.R. 3047, which among other things seeks to increase the effectiveness of claims filing and addresses the VA’s work credit system.  I look forward to hearing more about this bill.

Lastly, the Veterans Quality of Life Study Act of 2007, H.R. 4084, which I recently introduced, would take an important step toward examining one of the groundbreaking recommendations set forth by the Veteran’s Disability Benefits Commission, the Institute of Medicine and the President’s Commission on Care for America’s Returning Wounded Warriors regarding quality of life.  Answering the call of these recommendations, this legislation would require the VA to commission a study to determine whether and to what extent its disability rating system should compensate veterans for the loss of quality of life these impairments impose on their lives.

This legislation also seeks to allow substitution of claimants, ensuring that eligible family members can take the place of a veteran, in the event of his or her death, in the disability claims processing system and not have to begin all over again.  Lastly, this bill would expand the categories of reporting requirements of the annual report of the CAVC that would further assist Congress in analyzing and addressing the Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims’ workload and backlog.  The last provision deals with concerns the CAVC has raised about space allocation and the proposed construction of a Veterans Courthouse and Justice Center. 

During times of war, such as today, we must simultaneous ensure the proper compensation and support for our current veterans while also creating and implementing innovative solutions that will allow us to care for those who will become veterans of our current conflicts.  I also look forward to hearing from the Veterans’ Service Organizations and the VA’s representatives on these bills.

Thank you.