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Opening Statement of Honorable Jerry Mcnerney, Ranking Member of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee

Thank you, Mr. Denham.

I would first like to thank the witnesses for coming today to appear before the Subcommittee.  I know the issues pertinent to health care and benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs are of utmost importance to you.  

On a personal note, as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs-- which has oversight over VA’s compensation, pension, and other benefits-- it is a special privilege for me to participate in this hearing so close to home.  It’s an honor to be able to address the issues facing veterans in the Central Valley and across the country, and I am glad the committee is hearing directly from veterans and service officers in our area.  When I am at home here in California, I hear frequently about the difficulties many veterans experience when transitioning to civilian life.   

Today we are here to discuss vet centers – the benefits that they have provided to our veterans and the important and growing role they will have in helping veterans who are recently returning from service.  These centers provide an alternative environment outside of the regular VA system for a broad range of counseling, outreach, and referral services.  Most importantly, vet centers provide an environment in which veterans can speak openly to other veterans about their experiences.

There are approximately 300 vet centers across the country. We are here today to determine how vet centers can continue to fulfill their unique and critical role within the VA continuum of care, with a specific focus on readjustment counseling services provided at these facilities.  
Vet centers have expanded the services offered, and as a result, their workload continues to increase.  This trend will likely persist as returning service members, veterans, and their families deal with everything from mild readjustment issues to serious mental health challenges.

Mental health care is at the forefront of our agenda, and for good reason. Of the veterans from recent conflicts who have accessed VA health care, more than 50% have displayed mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and mood disorders.  Veterans’ mental health conditions not only affect them, but also have a significant impact on their families.  The VA has made some progress addressing the mental health needs of returning heroes, but far more needs to be done.

A bill that I supported last Congress, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, required the VA to establish a program to provide mental health services and readjustment counseling to veterans, their family, as well as members of the National Guard and Reserve.

I have been concerned that the VA has not made sufficient progress implementing these provisions.  I am working with a bipartisan group of my colleagues on this committee to make sure that VA is meeting its obligations under the law.  I will continue fighting for implementation of this program so that the needs of our nation’s veterans are met.

Each generation of veterans has its own unique needs.  It is important that vet centers are prepared to meet the needs of our new veterans and their families while still caring for those from previous conflicts.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on:

•    How we can maintain and improve services provided by Vet Centers;

•    Progress being made towards full implementation of the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act

•    If we have appropriate facilities and staffing;

•    What role other resources within our communities should play to help veterans and improve care; and

•    What we should do to strengthen the invaluable peer-to-peer counseling available through Vet Centers

We must all work together to ensure that all of our veterans receive the care they deserve. One veteran falling through the cracks is one too many.  I am glad the committee is here today to learn about the specific issues affecting veterans in the San Joaquin Valley.

I’d like to thank you all for your attendance here today.

Thank you, Mr. Denham.  I yield back.