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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 of the room.

A few preliminaries.  In accordance with Committee Rules, I ask that all cell phones and pagers be turned off, and as we have a lot of business to conduct in a short period of time I would like to conduct this hearing with as much decorum as possible.  Out of respect for our witnesses, please try to refrain from speaking out of order.

I would first like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee.  I know the issues pertinent to the claims backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs or “the VA”, are of utmost importance to you. 

On a personal note, as Chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs, it is a special privilege for me to conduct this hearing in my district, and an honor for me to be able to address the issues facing local veterans in or nearby their hometowns.  

For our veterans who are testifying today, I know that you have endured a great deal in seeking disability benefits from the VA and I thank you for sharing your experiences so that other veterans might not have to suffer the same result.

Everyone is familiar with the claims backlog problems at the VA and I will not belabor the issue.  The claims backlog of over 600,000 cases is very troubling. The current waiting periods at all levels in the VA disability benefits system, from 177 days at the Regional Office to 751 days at the VBA or 240 days at the CAVC, are all unacceptable.  The backlog and waiting times became exacerbated to the point of unmanageability due to the funding shortfalls over the past 5 years. 

Yet, despite the backlog, I firmly believe that this system is girded by a cadre of dedicated and professional employees who are committed to our veterans.   I know that my office has a wonderful working relationship with the VA’s New York City Regional Office that serves our district and I commend the employees for the fine work they do on behalf of our veterans. 

These facts notwithstanding, the New York City VA Regional Office’s performance on processing claims has fallen far behind the national average.  Currently, it averages 255 days to complete a claim and has a pending backlog of 9,638 claims (20% higher than its goal of 7,952).  

But, I know that it is working with one arm tied behind its back, because as pointed out by the American Legion in its testimony, due to a hiring freeze that began in 2001 through January 2006 to comply with federal cuts to VA funding, the NY City RO needs at least a third more employees (40-50) to deal with the number of claims it currently has and the number of claims anticipated.

I am heartened by the fact that the FY 08 Budget Resolution allowed and the FY08 MilCon-Va Appropriations bill will provide funding for over 1,000 full-time employees throughout the VBA to help with the overwhelming backlog.  I look forward to sending this bill to the President before 110th Congress adjourns its first session.  However, I firmly believe that the only way to maximize the VBA’s employees’ effectiveness in lessening the backlog is to give them the necessary tools and training to provide accurate ratings.  As such, I look forward to receiving information on the VA’s STAR training program updates as recommended by the IDA.

As the home of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the 105th Airlift wing of the Air National Guard at Stuart Airport, as well as Camp Smith, an Army National Guard facility, issues pertaining to the backlog hit especially close to home.   The veterans’ population in our district is 11.8 percent (roughly 70,000).  Moreover, the Iraq War has had a significant impact on the district, particularly the West Point community.  Sadly, West Point has had 55 graduates die in combat since September 11, 2001.  With the number of these graduates heading to a combat zone, the VA’s ability to deal with future claims is especially important to our community as well as to the nation’s ability to retain future officers of the United States Army. 

The first panel of witnesses today will present testimony regarding the impact the extended waiting periods at the VA has had on those their organizations represent.  We will also hear the testimony of 4 veterans from 3 different wars who will discuss the impact of long waiting times on their personal lives and financial well-being.  I look forward to hearing their testimonies. 

I also want to note that Ted Wolf, a Vietnam veteran battling prostate cancer, was scheduled to testify here today.  While we will hear his testimony, because of health problems he cannot be here today.  Ted and I have met multiple times and he is a truly wonderful person.  I want to send my prayers to him and his family at this difficult time.

From the VA, I would like to hear what it is doing or intends to do to place appropriate resources in the NY Regional Office; what it is doing both to address its 600,000-plus claims backlog; and to reduce waiting times.

I want us all to remain aware of the special privilege we possess in being able to devise the policies and administer the benefits for these brave men and women and their families. 

There is real sanctity in this privilege--we should always be mindful of whom we are serving. 

Lastly, I would like to recognize several members of our audience.  Michael Tokarz, a member of the American Legion Legislative Council, and Jerry Donnellan the Veterans Service Agency Director for Rockland County have provided written testimony for the record.  Nelson Rivera and Tom Meier, the Veterans Service Agency Directors for Dutchess and Westchester County, respectively, are here as well.  I want to thank them for attending and thank all our County Directors for their work in helping New York veterans.  We are lucky enough to have two directors of National Veterans Service Organizations here today.

John Rowan, of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and Larry Schulman, the National Commander of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, have both made the trip and I thank them for attending.

I also want to thank George Basher, the Director of the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs, for attending.  In addition to his service to New York veterans, Mr. Basher also serves on the Advisory Panel on Homelessness of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington.

Finally, Norm Bussel, a POW from World War II and an advocate for veterans, is here.  Mr. Bussel, and his wife, Melanie, first helped Alex Lazos, who will testify shortly, file his claim with the VA.  Mr. Bussel provided compelling testimony for this committee in Washington and I’m pleased to see him again.

Thank you all for attending.

To take care of some official business, I request unanimous consent that the record remain open for 5 business days to revise, extend and receive additional statements and remarks.

I now would like to formally welcome Ranking Member Lamborn to my district, who is joining us all the way from Colorado’s 5th district—home of the Air Force Academy, and recognize him for his opening statement.  Thank you for being here, I know that you are just as committed to fixing the VA’s claims backlog as I am.