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Opening Statement of Hon. Steve Buyer, Ranking Repubican Member, and a Representative in Congress from the State of Indiana

 

Thank you Mr. Chairman,

Good morning.  I’d also like to welcome everyone to our first hearing of the 1st Session of the 110th Congress. 

Mr. Secretary, I am glad you can be with us today to share with the Committee the President’s proposed budget for 2008.  I commend you for yet again embracing the challenge of improving the VA’s budgeting process.  Building on last year’s progress, it appears that improving the integrity of the process has borne fruit with this budget.

Mr. Secretary, as you observe your second anniversary as chief steward of our nation’s veterans we can look back and note that it has been a year of challenges and successes.  I thank you for your willingness to squarely meet the challenges and commend you on those successes. 

Since this time last year, we passed a major legislative initiative – Public Law 109-461 – the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Information Technology Improvement Act of 2006.  This bill was the result of a bipartisan effort led by this Committee in concert with our colleagues in the Senate.  We listened to 20 VSOs and MSOs and incorporated many of their suggestions.  We authorized 24 major construction projects in 15 states, approved continued leasing of 8 medical facilities and required VA to explore options for construction of a new medical facility in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  With regard to our returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, we added $65M to increase the number of clinicians treating post traumatic stress disorder and improve their training.  It further authorizes spending for collaboration in PTSD diagnosis and treatment between VA and DoD.  We authorized more funding for additional blind rehabilitation specialists and increased the number of facilities where these specialists will be located.  We expanded eligibility for Dependents Education Assistance to the spouse or child of a servicemember hospitalized or receiving outpatient care before the servicemember’s discharge for a total and permanent service-connected disability.  The intent here was to help enhance the spouse’s earning power as early as possible before discharge of the servicemember.

We made chapter 35 more flexible for spouses and dependents, we restored the entitlements for members of the National Guard and Reserves who are called to active duty during the school year, we extended work study provisions to ensure a veteran didn’t lose a job during the school year, and we required VA to report ways to streamline administration of the GI Bill to shorten the time to get that first check.

Some expressed concerns about veterans ability to afford a home so we authorized VA to guarantee co-op housing units which are often the most affordable housing in many areas.

Many asked us to help veteran, especially service-disabled veteran-owned businesses, so we gave VA the tools to increase the amount of business they do with veterans by giving service-disabled veteran-owned businesses preference over all other set-aside groups and ensuring the survivors of veteran business owners who acquire ownership continue their veteran-owned status with VA.

Service organizations also expressed the need to revitalize the veterans employment programs at the Veterans Employment and Training Service.  So, we made several changes to strengthen mandatory training for DVOPs and LVERs, revised the incentive program to make it more effective, and established a pilot licensing and credentialing program.  And VVA especially, noted that DOL needed to develop regulations to implement the Jobs for Veterans Act.  We did that too.

Since this time last year, we have seen the Department embrace the idea of centralizing its IT under the VA’s CIO.  I believe that this innovation will be seen as part of your legacy to the Department of Veterans Affairs.  As part of our work on IT, we engaged in a bipartisan fashion to increase data security in order to protect our nation’s veterans.  We have also worked through the complexities of the Charleston model, forging an exciting new way to approach hospital design and construction.    

It is our job to preserve those arenas of excellence and to work together in a bipartisan fashion to ensure every service the Department provides meets the highest standards. 

One of the most important services remains the determination and awarding of benefits.  As you know, Mr. Secretary, the claims backlog has reached an all-time high.  To help lead the way-ahead, I organized a Compensation and Benefits Accountability Task Force in Dec 2005.  After almost one year, they provided me a powerful work product with numerous recommendations.  I want to commend those who spent many hours working on this valuable product – Blake Ortman, the Associate Legislative Director of PVA, James Doran, the National Service Director for AMVETS, Rick Weidman the National Legislative  Director for Vietnam Veterans of America, John Lopez, the Chairman for the Association of Service Disabled Veterans, and Steve Smithson the Assistant Director, National Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Commission, the American Legion.  Gentlemen, thank you for your good work.  Mr. Secretary, I look forward to sharing this with you, as well as the members of this Committee as we tackle this serious problem.

It’s worth noting that again this year, the President has proposed substantial increases in the budgets of agencies focused on fighting the war on terror – the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.   I am pleased that again this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs – an agency focused on caring for those who have borne the battle – has also received a substantial increase

of approximately 8 percent over the level contained in H.J. Res. 20.  At a time when much of the rest of government received a 2.2 percent increase, I believe this reflects the commitment of this administration to care for our nation’s veterans during time of war.

As you know Mr. Secretary, a budget is much more than numbers.  In the end, it must translate into real actions on the ground that has a positive affect on America’s veterans.  As I look at this budget, I view it in light of my top three priorities, which remain:

  • Caring for veterans who have service-connected disabilities, those with special needs, and the indigent.
  • Ensuring a seamless transition from military service to the VA.
  • And providing veterans every opportunity to live full, healthy lives.

We have an obligation to those who bear the burdens of war and of military service -- and to their survivors.  Our work must move us toward the fulfillment of that obligation. 

Therefore I want to judge this budget not just by the numbers, but for what it does for America’s veterans.  When you send us a budget of this magnitude, Mr. Secretary, I expect to also find those outcomes you seek for success.  The Congress is not a blank check.  We will be looking for accountability.  Generally, I think this is a good budget.  But as we look at desired outcomes, I want to review what we learned from the 20 VSOs and MSOs at last September’s “look back, look ahead hearing.”  At that time, the issues most frequently cited as concerns were: 1) VBA and the claims backlog, 2) seamless transition, mental health care, and health care funding, and 3) improving the GI Bill.  Mr. Secretary, I’d ask you to explain how this budget addresses each of these issues and improves the lives of our veterans. 

Mr. Secretary, I applaud you for the direct and forthright budgeting process that you have used in developing this year’s budget.  There appear to be none of the gimmicks that were used in years past. 

That said, there are some concerns in the budget before us today:   Mr. Secretary, last year you brought us a similar request for enrollment fees and increased co-pays.  I personally agree that it is appropriate to ask for cost-sharing of veterans without service-connected disabilities.  I applaud the fact that these legislative proposals do not reduce the discretionary medical care appropriations.  However, I am concerned that this year, any funds collected under these proposals go directly to the U.S. Treasury.

Further, VA’s projects nearly 2.8 billion dollars in collections, 7 percent above last year’s projected collections.  Given the agency’s track record, this appears to be overly optimistic.

I am also concerned with your answer to the claims backlog.  Simply throwing more money at the problem, is not the answer.  I am troubled by what I would characterize as an insufficient use of technology and instead, the status quo – throw more people at the problem.  We’ll continue this discussion throughout the year, Mr. Secretary, but I want you to know upfront, I am not pleased.

Budgets, systems, and programs are, after all, about service to veterans.  As you mentioned in your opening remarks Mr. Secretary, you and I, along with Dr Boozman and Mr. Salazar,  traveled last year to Iraq and traced the path of wounded military personnel back through Germany to state-side military treatment facilities and ultimately to the VA hospitals.   For me, this experience brought into sharp focus the issues facing today’s veterans.  These brave men and women have sacrificed everything for this nation and we owe them our energy and diligence in making them whole again. 

Mr. Secretary, I thank you for appearing here today and look forward to your testimony.  I also look forward to hearing from our second panel – those VSOs representing the Independent Budget and the American Legion. 

Mr. Chairman, I yield back.