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Opening Statement of Hon. Alcee L. Hastings, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Chairman Runyan, Ranking Member McNerney, and Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee:

Exactly one year ago, I testified before this Subcommittee on H.R. 4541, the Veterans Pensions Protection Act of 2010.   On July 27, 2010, the bill was marked up and forwarded to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs by voice vote.  On September 28, 2010, the bill passed by voice vote as part of H.R. 6132, the Veterans Benefits and Economic Welfare Improvement Act of 2010

Indeed, the Veterans Pensions Protection Act is a common sense and much-needed piece of legislation.  It is also well supported by numerous veterans’ organizations.  I am grateful for the opportunity to once again testify in favor of this important legislation and thank the Subcommittee for holding today’s hearing.   However, I am saddened that the Senate did not consider this bill before Congress adjourned last year.  It is my sincere hope that Congress can work together to pass this legislation in an effort to build better lives for all of America’s veterans and their families. 

I would also like to welcome and recognize the veterans in the room today and express my gratitude for their service to our nation.  Each of you has served our nation with honor and dignity and for that I am truly humbled by your service.  Furthermore, I would like to recognize and thank the countless veterans’ organizations for their ongoing commitment to our veterans.   

I decided to introduce the Veterans Pensions Protection Act after one of my constituents, Mr. Kerry Scriber, a navy veteran with muscular dystrophy, had his pension abruptly cancelled. Mr. Scriber did not break the law, nor did he commit any crime.  In March 2008, he was hit by a truck when crossing the street in his wheelchair with his service dog on his way to the pharmacy.  He flew 10 feet into the air and landed head-first on the pavement, suffering broken bones and teeth.  Additionally, his service dog was injured and his wheelchair destroyed. 

As a law-abiding citizen, Mr. Scriber reported the incident to the Veterans Administration (VA), including the insurance settlement payment that he received from the driver’s insurance to cover his medical expenses and the replacement cost of his wheelchair.  As a result, the VA cancelled his pension benefits for an entire year.

When assessing a veteran’s eligibility for a pension, the VA considers a variety of sources of revenue to determine a veteran’s annual income.  If this amount exceeds the income limit set by the VA, the veteran does not qualify for a pension or loses their benefits.  Currently, the VA considers any reimbursement that compensates a veteran for his or her expenses due to an accident, theft, or loss as income. 

Under current law, if a veteran is seriously injured in an accident or is the victim of a theft and receives insurance compensation to cover their medical expenses; the replacement cost of the stolen items; or for pain and suffering, they will likely lose their benefits.  In effect, the law punishes veterans when they suffer from such an accident or theft.

Mr. Scriber reached out to the VA several times, asking to have his pension reinstated because he could not cover his medical bills; replace his wheelchair; pay for daily expenses; or afford his mortgage without his pension.  Each time, the VA refused to reinstate his pension. He had fallen below the poverty line and was on the verge of losing his home and joining the ranks of over 100,000 homeless veterans nationwide.  In the spring of 2009, Mr. Scriber reached out to my office in desperate need of assistance.  I contacted the West Palm Beach VA medical center and wrote several letters to Secretary Eric Shinseki, however they did not change their policy, nor did they restore Mr. Scriber’s benefits for a whole year.

I understand that the VA faces greater challenges as more service members return from the battlefield, but we must do everything in our power to ensure that our veterans have the benefits they rightly deserve.  I am distraught that the VA can move so expeditiously to cancel the pension of an unemployed and disabled veteran without notice.  The VA has a moral obligation to care for our veterans and their families.  It is disheartening that veterans are overlooked and mistreated at times due to flaws in VA regulations. 

The Veterans Pensions Protection Act amends the US Code to exempt the reimbursement of expenses related to accidents, theft, loss or casualty loss from being included in the determination of a veteran’s income.  This will guarantee the continuity of our veterans’ pensions and that no veteran will have their benefits unfairly and abruptly depreciated or cancelled.  My distinguished colleague from Montana, Senator Jon Tester, has introduced a companion bill after a similar incident happened to one of his constituents.  The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing on the bill last month.

Clearly, there is something wrong with our current law.  It is imperative that the VA ensure that no veteran face the grave difficulties that Mr. Scriber did.  We must enact regulations that help veterans live better lives, not hurt them, which includes issuing pension benefits to veterans who legitimately meet the income criteria and rely on such assistance to survive.  Our veterans have shown their devotion to our nation with their bravery and sacrifice.  We must now prove our dedication to those heroes by treating them in accordance with the values and ideals upon which this great nation was founded. 

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McNerney, Distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, I ask for your support of this important legislation.  This concludes my testimony.  I am now pleased to answer any questions.  Thank you.