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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jon Runyan, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Good morning.  This legislative hearing on H.R. 569, H.R. 570, H.R. 602, H.R. 671, H.R. 679, H.R. 733, H.R. 894, and H.R. 1405 will now come to order.

Today we have a large number of witnesses present due to the high level of interest in some of the bills before us. Therefore, in the interest of time, I am going to forgo a lengthy opening statement and just briefly touch on three bills on today’s agenda which I am proud to have introduced.

H.R. 569, the Veterans Compensation Cost of Living Act, or COLA, of 2013, provides a cost of living adjustment increase to veterans’ disability compensation rates and other benefits.

H.R. 570 is the American Heroes COLA Act, which is related to the aforementioned COLA act of 2013, except this bill seeks to make permanent the annual increase to veterans’ disability compensation rates and other benefits by tying the increase to the cost of living adjustments for social security benefits.

With the passage of the America Heroes COLA Act, veterans will never again have to depend on Congressional action to receive an increase to the cost of living adjustment they have more than earned through their service. Instead, these increases will become automatic from year to year just as Social Security benefits increases are adjusted automatically every year.

As some of you may recall, last year our annual COLA bill was held up in the Senate, with reports that it had been put on “secret hold” by a Senator.  There was some question as to whether the bill would pass and if veterans would receive their annual COLA in a timely manner.  The situation was unacceptable and unfair to our veterans. Thankfully, with pressure from this Committee and the veterans’ community, the bill was ultimately passed and signed into law.  However, last year’s situation highlights the need for this legislation. 

The final bill I have sponsored is H.R. 733, the Access to Veterans Benefits Improvement Act, which provides certain local government employees, and certain employees of Congress access to case tracking information through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

There is no doubt that we have a responsibility to serve our veterans by ensuring that every effort is made to simplify the claims process.  Key actors in this effort are county veteran service officers, whose expertise in claim development benefits veterans in many communities across America.  Their assistance is especially critical to many thousands of veterans who live in rural areas, hours away from a VA regional office.

Many veterans are overwhelmed as they try to navigate their way through the claims process, and they are further frustrated when they ask for help from their county VSO, or their member of Congress, and that person cannot directly access even the most basic information about the status of their claim.

This bill would allow these local government officials to check on the status of a veterans claim, and ensure that VA has all of the information needed to process claims in the most efficient manner possible.  

Again, in the interest of time, I would like to reiterate my request that today’s witnesses abide by the decorum and rules of this hearing and to summarize your statement to five minutes or less during oral testimony. We have a large number of individuals ready to testify on legislation today, and I want to make sure everyone is heard in a timely manner. I would also remind all present that, without any objection, your written testimony will be made part of the hearing record.

I appreciate everyone’s attendance at this hearing and now call on the Ranking Member for her opening statement.