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Hon. Cliff Stearns, a Representative in Congress from the State of Florida

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today on the proposed budget.  Health services are a cornerstone of the Veteran’s Affairs mission, and I am looking forward to discussing proposals for improvement in delivering critical services to our veterans.

I am encouraged that the Administration request includes an increase in medical care of $1.9 billion over fiscal year 2007, and in particular I am pleased by the $56 million increase in the VA’s Mental Health Initiative, for a total of $360 million.  This has been a neglected area in the past, but it needs increased focus now as more and more veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  We need to make sure that they and their families receive the counseling they need.

Our veterans have provided this country with invaluable service, and yet too often the disability claims process is complicated and frequently delayed.  It is imperative that we work quickly to resolve this overwhelming backlog in processing claims.  The most time consuming process would be processing new claims, and with the VA anticipating more than 54,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, we must reform the process to make it efficient and thorough.   

An additional area of delay is filing ratings claims, which takes on average 155 days to process!  The VA anticipates seeing 5.3 million veterans in 2008, which represents an incredible administrative burden, and portends of even longer claims processing delays.  We must seek ways to allocate staff efficiently and utilize advancements in technology to reduce this burdensome backlog.

Thank you again Mr. Chairman, for holding this hearing, and I look forward to hearing the vision for veterans healthcare 2008 from today’s panel.