Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Opening Statement of Hon. Jon Runyan, Chairman, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs
Good morning. I want to welcome everyone to this hearing on the budget for fiscal year 2013 as it pertains to the Veterans Benefit Administration, National Cemetery Administration, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and American Battle Monuments Commission.
Last year this subcommittee held its first hearing of the 112th Congress and I made my intentions and hopes clear that as Chairman of this Subcommittee my priority would be a laser focus on tackling the size of the backlog of claims for disability benefits.
Over the past year VA has demonstrated their desire and commitment to be partners in bringing the VA into the 21st century, as reflected in the 2013 budget. I support VA’s goal of completing 1.4 million disability compensation and pension claims, marking an increase of 36% over 2011. I can assure the administration that this subcommittee will vigorously pursue the necessary oversight to ensure this goal becomes a reality for all of our nation’s veterans.
In these uncertain and turbulent economic times, it is the duty of all of us here and those we represent to ensure benefits earned by our nation’s heroes are administered as efficiently and timely as possible. “Justice delayed is justice denied” and benefits delayed, are benefits denied. To this end, I note the forthcoming roll out of the VBMS program, which I believe signifies a turning point for the claims backlog. In addition to the VBMS program, VA has also recently launched several pilot programs, and consolidated its pension and fiduciary programs.
However, technology alone will not solve the issues pertaining to the backlog. It is our solemn responsibility to remain vigilant. We will continue to oversee these programs to ensure that they are operating efficiently while also serving the needs of our nation’s veterans. Although VA continues to emphasize its initiatives in the area of people, process, and technology; it is important that VA follow through on these programs while not forgetting its primary goal of providing timely, quality benefits to veterans.
A second major area I’d like to discuss involves the final resting grounds of our nation’s veterans. The National Cemetery Administration provides the invaluable role of serving veterans and their families during the burial process and maintaining our National shrines and cemeteries.
However, like every human institution, mistakes and oversights are made from time to time. In November NCA self reported to this committee the misalignment of a row of head stones at the Ft. Sam Houston National Cemetery. Families of those affected were notified and a nationwide audit was begun. Initial reports from that audit, which is still ongoing, have identified similar issues at at-least 5 other National Cemeteries in just the first phase of this audit. These “errors” appear to have a common origin in that they all occurred during raise and realignments projects performed by outside contractors.
The reason this is relevant to a budget hearing is because in most cases the contractors’ work was approved and payment made without adequate oversight or review to ensure the quality and accuracy of the work done. Because of an omission of fiscal oversight the work has to be done right the second time and a nationwide audit at great expense conducted. Statistically, less than 60 discrepancies reported after auditing almost 1.5 million grave sites computes to be a tiny fraction of 1%.
NCA however is not in the business of percentages and statistics; they are in the business of providing a final resting place of honor and dignity for our Nation’s heroes.
While I commend the NCA’s initiative and quick response in identifying and addressing the situation, I must reiterate my resolve that no mistake going forward will be acceptable. We owe it to our veterans and their families to get it right the first time, every time. Anything less, regardless of the statistics, is unacceptable.
Towards this end, I want to ensure that America’s most valuable memorials to its honored dead have the necessary amount of resources and institutional oversight going forward to prevent such problems from reoccurring. While we must do so mindful of the budget deficit crisis at hand, we must continue to ensure these sacred grounds are well prepared for current and future generation of veterans and their families. Finally, it is my hope that NCA continues to move closer to near universal veteran access to burial options around this nation.
This hearing will also be taking a look at the budgets of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). While I do not anticipate many controversial issues within these budgets, I would like to express my hopes that they too reflect the trying times we face and that will strive for increased efficiency over waste and better performance over tradition solely for tradition’s sake.