Opening Statement of Honorable Jerry McNerney, Ranking Democratic Member, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Thank you Mr. Chairman.
Today, we have a full schedule that includes seven bills before us that address some of the unique needs of our nation’s veterans’ population. The bills pertain to a variety of issues ranging from burial eligibility to monuments, from claims processing and C&P exams to presumptive illnesses, and from adaptive housing benefits to freedom of speech issues.
H.R. 2996, the Gulf War Syndrome ‘Presumptive Illness’ Extension Act of 2011, sponsored by Mr. Kissell of North Carolina, would extend the period of time in which the VA presumes the service-connection of certain disabilities of veterans who served in the Persian Gulf War, as well as Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Afghanistan.
The regulation establishing the period of time that the VA has for identifying presumptive illnesses related to certain veterans’ military service will now expire on December 31, 2016 thanks to VA’s recent rulemaking to its regulations. H.R. 2996 would extend this period to December 2018, which would allow these veterans to file for a set of conditions that may arise years after their service, as we have seen in veterans following the Vietnam War. This bill would also extend the qualifying service area to include Afghanistan and other supporting areas for Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and New Dawn.
I understand that VA opposes these expansions but I think we need to look at whether these expanding to these areas make sense. I think H.R. 2996 reinforces Congress’s intent that all Veterans who serve in these combat areas and those serving in nearby areas should be entitled to these presumptions as we await further scientific study on their illnesses.
Also, included in today’s hearing is H.R. 4299, the Quality Housing for Veterans Act, a bill which I introduced. This bill seeks to provide specially adapted housing assistance to veterans residing temporarily in housing owned by a family caregiver.
According to the Department of Defense, more than 48,000 service members have been wounded in action while serving in the recent conflicts. In caring for our injured men and women in uniform, we must continue to address their needs so they may live as independently and comfortably as possible after their honorable military service. Currently, the Temporary Residence Adaptation Grant is available to eligible veterans temporarily residing in a home owned by a family member, but this benefit is set to expire at the end of 2012.
I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, Members of this Subcommittee and the other stakeholders to ensure that our most critically wounded servicemembers and veterans are provided adequate housing benefits and that this program will be extended until 2014.
Mr. Chairman we have several other bills on the agenda today, including H.R. 5880 and H.R. 5881. While I support the bill, H.R. 5880, which would extend VA’s contract authority with private providers of C&P exams, I want to ensure that we remain vigilant in our oversight of this authority.
Your other bill, Mr. Chairman, H.R. 5881, would grant county veteran service officers, other State and local employees as well as staff of Members of Congress with greater access to veterans’ claims information for tracking purposes. I wholeheartedly support the mission of this bill and our county veterans service officers, who serve my constituents back home. I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today about the benefits of this bill and how we may improve upon it to avoid the privacy and security concerns voiced in the past by VA and currently by the VSOs.
I also look forward to hearing from our stakeholders on the potential impact that H.R. 2720 and H.R. 2355 will have on our nation’s veterans. Additionally, I wholeheartedly support the goals of H.R. 5735 and hope we make any necessary changes to be able move this measure forward. Finally, I look forward to hearing VA’s views on these measures.
I thank all of the Members for their thoughtful legislation. And, I thank our other esteemed witnesses for joining us today and look forward to receiving their testimonies.
Thank you and I yield back.