Opening Statement of Hon. Steve Buyer, Ranking Repubican Member, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana
Thank you Chairman Filner and Chairman Akaka for holding this hearing, and I thank my colleagues from both Houses of Congress for their attendance this afternoon.
Commander Kurpius I want to welcome you and thank you for your service to our nation and for your testimony this morning.
We are also graced this morning by the presence of Linda Meader, national president of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.
I especially want to recognize some fellow Hoosiers, State Commander Larry Shaw from Marion, Indiana; Junior Vice Commander Rick Faulk from Indianapolis, State Adjutant Quartermaster David Havely from Greenwood; and Legislative Committee Chairman Tom Burks, from Indianapolis.
Thanks to all of you for your wartime service to our nation. Your example is being followed and built upon by the incredible young men and women serving our nation and the cause of freedom today.
VFW has been a strong voice, and an effective advocate for their members and veterans everywhere. For years, the VFW has helped thousands of veterans with their many programs. I am especially impressed by the VFW’s military services programs, among them Operation Uplink and VFW’s Military Assistance Program.
Commander, your testimony touches on key issues of interest to us all, and I appreciate the views of your membership. As you state, the VA system is not perfect, and you are right to give the system credit where it is due.
The Committee has just finished submitting our separate budget views and estimates, and the numbers tell an important story.
Secretary Jim Nicholson, having taken responsibility for his budget after a difficult initial period, submitted a strong request, and we appreciate his efforts and the President’s continued support for veterans.
Committee Republicans have in turn recommended more than $28 billion for medical services – nearly a billion over the President’s request. Our recommendation of more than $35 billion in discretionary funding for the Veterans Health Administration is also about a billion over the Administration’s request.
Within these funds are an additional $100 million over the Presdient’s request for medical services for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, an additional $200 million for mental health and an additional $50 million for polytrauma rehabilitation.
Our colleagues in the majority have also submitted strong recommendations and I especially appreciate the Chairman’s realization that funds are not unlimited. While the majority’s health care recommendations fall short of their self-proclaimed bible, the Independent Budget, by nearly $1 billion, they are indeed strong numbers.
Our views and estimates reflect the priorities of a nation at war and our responsibility to regard the care of veterans as a cost of war. Between the majority and the minority, there is just over a one percent difference in recommended discretionary health care funding and half of a percent in overall spending. That shows our common recognition of the importance of veterans funding.
Our common understanding is influenced by a difference in priorities: In recommending $291 million in additional construction and facilities, Committee Republicans have also significantly increased funding that will resource VA’s future ability to care for our newest veterans.
VA must be properly resourced to fulfill its responsibilities in the seamless transition of servicemembers into the veterans’ affairs system.
Reflecting the importance of this seamless transition, I have asked you, Mr. Chairman, to elevate the subcommittee hearing on seamless transition scheduled for Thursday to a full committee oversight hearing.
Our recommendations are especially timely in light of the problems revealed at Walter Reed, where single soldiers were allowed to live in substandard outpatient care housing. We must prevent such problems from occurring anywhere in the VA system.
Mr. Chairman, VA has come far in its health care since the days of uncaring staff and inadequate facilities depicted in the movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” but we cannot let the system slide back. I propose to you that on a bipartisan basis, members of this Committee conduct unannounced visits to VA sites throughout the session. I am sure you will agree that our oversight must be vigorous and unhampered.
In reading your testimony, Commander, I note and concur with your concern over the claims backlog. Veterans must not only receive their claims in a timely fashion but these claims decisions should be accurate the first time.
Some in the bureaucracy would have us believe the backlog is not all that big. We have heard it called an “inventory.” Veterans waiting for a decision, and perhaps dying as they wait, is neither normal nor acceptable.
In recommending additional hiring of 1,000 employees for VBA, we acknowledge that part of the solution is indeed having adequate staff.
Republicans support adequate staff, but we go beyond the conventional approach of merely throwing people at the problem. We recommend funding to explore solutions using technology and partnerships with municipal, county and state veterans’ offices, as well as VSOs and MSOs, which can help accurately develop claims.
We also suggested funding for pilot programs in mobile claims offices, and in developing a rules-based adjudication system.
The GI Bill is as much a benefit to the nation as it is to veterans who have earned it. Our young men and women returning from military service are a national treasure. During the 109th Congress, the Committee determined the need to modernize the Montgomery GI Bill, especially for reserve component servicemembers.
Consequently, Committee Republicans propose $1.5 billion in additional mandatory spending to improve these education and training benefits, which have proven since 1944 to be one of our nation’s greatest investments.
Commander, I am glad to see that you also acknowledge problems in the VA information security system. I commend the VA Secretary for centralizing IT, but I am not convinced that data losses like the one in Birmingham will end. VA must do a better job of protecting our veterans’ personal information. We have recommended increased IT security-related spending and we will continue our oversight on this issue.
In memorial affairs, VA is doing a good job, and I commend Under Secretary Tuerk and his team. Yet, with some 1,600 veterans dying each day, many from our “Greatest Generation,” we must accelerate progress toward fulfilling the promise of the National Shrine Commitment.
Our recommendations therefore include additional funding to help ensure our veterans a final resting place in a national shrine.
Mr. Chairman, I conclude with the priorities that have unfailingly guided my consideration of the issues before us. They are:
- Caring for veterans with service-connected disabilities, those with special needs, and the indigent.
- Ensuring a seamless transition from the military to the VA.
- And providing veterans every opportunity to live full, and healthy lives.
These will continue to serve as my priorities, and I look forward to hearing those of the VFW. Thank you once again for your testimony Commander, and I yield back.