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Opening Statement of Hon. Jerry McNerney, Ranking Democratic Member, Subcommittee on Disablity Assistance and Memorial Affairs

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.  

I would like to thank you for holding today’s hearing.  The goal of today’s hearing is to examine the various FY 2012 budget requests of agencies over which the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee exercises jurisdiction, including the U.S. Department Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA)  and National Cemetery Administration (NCA); the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (CAVC); and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). 

These organizations oversee many major benefits, services and protections for our nation’s veterans, their families, and survivors--ranging from providing compensation, pension and burial benefits to ensuring appellate rights and maintaining our National Shrine requirements both here and abroad.  I look forward to hearing how these benefits and services will be administered with the optimal levels of efficiency and effectiveness with the new budget request. 

Today’s hearing, our Subcommittee’s first of the 112th Congress, is an important one.  As all of you know, Congress is working hard to balance our budget and reduce the deficit while at the same time provide earned and needed benefits to veterans and their families.   

Over the past four years, Congress has provided more funding, resources and access to VA benefits and care in four years than in the previous 12 years.  The overall FY 2012 VA budget request is $132.2 billion. Of the total Department Budget request, $70.3 billion (53%) is designated for mandatory funding to pay benefits to Veterans, their families and survivors. This represents almost a 6% increase from the 2011 level of $66 billion. 

This Administration has shown that supporting the troops and our veterans is not just a slogan – it’s a mandate.

Like many of the VSOs and other stakeholders who represent our veterans, one of my top priorities will be addressing the problems that continue to plague our disability claims process.  It is a disgrace that we have such a large claims backlog, and it is an insult to the veterans who have served our Nation. 

There is no reason that we are still processing claims with 20th Century technology.  I agree with Secretary Shinseki that we need to get our claims process under control to deliver these benefits in a 21st century, paperless manner.  Get the claim right the first time, and don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.

I think this budget reflects the work that VA is doing to move the claims process in the right direction.  However, and I know that many of the VSOs agree with me, that while VBA is making some progress with its numerous claims processing initiatives and with the rollout of the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS), more needs to be done.  I believe that the Virtual Lifetime electronic Record effort, along with other collaborations between DoD and VA will assist greatly with this 21st century transformation. I hope that we can continue to exercise strenuous oversight over these areas to ensure that these ideas actually materialize and make a real difference for our Veterans.  We want to make sure that we do not confuse activity with progress.

I also believe that we need to continue the reform work and oversight from the past four years, particularly as included in the claims process transformation roadmap laid out in P.L. 110-389, the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008.  It is going to take the sustained efforts of all stakeholders to figure out how to transform the VA’s claims processing system.  The way that we transformed the VHA in the 1990’s, with everyone at the table, with a focused commitment of leadership, vision, and resources--is the same way that we need to proceed to transform the VBA today.  Our veterans, their families and survivors deserve no less.

As the new Ranking Member of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee, I look forward to working with Chairman Runyan and all of our stakeholders on these and other priorities.

I would like to congratulate the Honorable Bruce E. Kasold for his ascendency to Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.  I also look forward to hearing from all of our witnesses today--your input is very critical to our oversight and informs our legislative efforts.

Thank you Mr. Chairman, I yield back.