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Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, Member United States House of Representatives

Good morning.  Welcome to this joint hearing of the Committees on Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services.  I also welcome Chairman Buck McKeon and Ranking Member Adam Smith and, of course, my friend from Maine the Ranking Member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Mike Michaud.
 
This is the second time in two years that these two Committees on which I am proud to serve have met jointly to review the collaborative efforts of the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs in assisting service members with their transition from active duty to civilian life.  

A year ago we were privileged to have Secretaries Panetta and Shinseki at the witness table.  Both of them testified at length regarding the progress VA and DoD were making in several key areas.  I’d like to revisit two of those areas in my opening statement.  First, the progress made in developing an integrated electronic health record.  Second, the progress made in reducing the wait times associated with veterans’ disability claims, which necessarily involves cooperation from DoD in the transfer of records.

I’ll start with the electronic health record.  In response to my direct question at last year’s hearing Secretary Shinseki remarked that the two departments had finally, after 17 months of discussion, agreed on a way forward on a “single, joint, common Integrated Electronic Health Record” that would be completed by 2017.  The Secretary told us that each of those words – single, joint, and common -- meant something, and that finally we were breaking through the cultural issues between the two departments that had stifled progress in the past.

What a difference a year makes.  Contrary to the Secretaries’ testimony, the two departments are, once again, moving on their own tracks, with promises we’ve heard before about making two separate systems “interoperable.”  Pardon my frustration, but it seems the only thing interoperable we get are the litany of excuses flying across both departments every year as to why it’s taking so long to get this done.
In response to this latest course correction, the House included an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill, an amendment developed in collaboration with the leadership of the Armed Services, Veterans’ Affairs, and Appropriations Committees, to direct the completion of an integrated health record by October 1, 2016.  The message of the amendment is simple:  No more excuses, get this done.  I’m anxious to hear from our witnesses how they’ll comply with the mandate of the amendment once it is enacted into law.
   
The second issue I’ll briefly touch on is the disability claims backlog.  It’s interesting to note that the progress made in reducing the pending inventory of claims the last few months correlates with the heightened Congressional oversight and media scrutiny.  Well, none of us up here are going to take our foot off the gas when it comes to ensuring progress on the backlog.  And although progress has been made lately, VA is woefully short of its own goals for the year.
 
Going forward, ending the backlog necessarily requires a seamless records transfer from DoD.  I look forward to hearing the status of those efforts and what more can be done.  This problem of veterans waiting years for their disability claims to be decided must remain at the forefront of our consciences, especially as further troop draw downs occur over the next five years.  It, too, is an issue where the excuses must end, and real, sustained progress must occur.

Very quickly, just a bit of housekeeping before we proceed.  To accommodate such a large contingent of members we have agreed to last year’s framework that limited to 2 minutes each member’s time to ask questions of the witnesses. Therefore, I ask unanimous consent that each member have not more than 2 minutes to question the panel of witnesses, starting with my own questions.  Without objection, so ordered.

Further, I ask unanimous consent to include all member statements in today’s hearing record.  Without objection, so ordered.
 
I now recognize Chairman Buck McKeon for his opening remarks to be followed by Ranking Member Mike Michaud, and then Ranking Adam Smith for their opening remarks.