Hearing Of The House Committee On Veterans' Affairs- Legislative Presentation Of The American Legion
Welcome, to the newly elected National Commander of The American Legion, Clarence E. Hill. I would also like to welcome the National President of The American Legion Auxiliary, Rita Navarette. Thank you for your advocacy for veterans.
It is an honor for Senator Akaka and me to hear the views of The American Legion and its 2.7 million members. The information provided here today is vital as the committee addresses the pressing needs of all of our nation's veterans.
Before we start, I would like to extend my compliments to The American Legion Washington staff and to tell you, Commander, what a pleasure it is to work with them.
Together, we have taken great strides in the past two and a half years to provide our veterans the quality health care and services that they require -- and that they have earned.
G.I. Bill -- The new Post-9/11 G.I. Bill is the greatest overhaul of the G.I. Bill in more than 20 years, covering the cost of a college education at a public university. Reserve and National Guard benefits are tied to length of service, and better reflect the sacrifice made by these citizen soldiers. Soldiers and veterans now have the option of transferring education benefits to their spouses and children. The Committee continues to monitor the implementation of this new benefit which will help make our veterans part of the economic recovery, much like the veterans of World War II.
Landmark Budgets: We are all in agreement that the cost of the war must include the cost of the warrior. The 111th Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act which provided a $1.4 billion increase for veterans funding in 2009. Over the last two years, the New Democratic Congress has provided $17.7 billion more to the baseline VA budget. This unprecedented increase is essential for our troops and veterans. With your help, we have been able to provide budgets that are worthy of the sacrifices of our veterans.
Housing: Last Congress, we successfully revamped the VA home loan program to address the housing needs of veterans. We worked to protect service members and veterans from foreclosure, increased the VA home loan limit, and enabled more veterans to refinance their existing high-risk loans with VA loans.
Health Care: There are hundreds of thousands of new veterans and I believe that it is simply our duty as a nation to care for them when they return. Over 40% of our veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are entering the VA health care system. Last Congress, an additional three years of VA health care eligibility was provided for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- for a total of five years. We passed new laws to expand mental health services, improve treatment for traumatic brain injury, and provide a toll-free suicide hotline. We also took great strides to improve VA's ability to care for veterans as they transition from active duty to veterans' status.
But much work remains. Just last month, I spoke with many of you in Louisville, Kentucky, about the needs of our veterans. The Committee has set an aggressive agenda to honor the service and sacrifice made by America's proud veterans.
Advance Appropriations: The American Legion has long advocated funding veterans' health care in advance of the start of each fiscal year. Over the last 22 years, 19 VA budgets were late. In response, I introduced -- and the House passed -- H.R. 1016, the Advance Appropriations for VA Health Care. This offers a historic new approach to providing health care for America's veterans. I am pleased to be working with Senator Akaka to advance this plan and we are much closer to providing timely and predictable funding for veterans health care!
Fiscal Year 2010: The House successfully passed an appropriations bill that would add $14.5 billion to the budget in 2010. This is the third straight budget to exceed the request of the Independent Budget! If enacted, this year's bill will amount to a 58% increase in the past 2.5 years for the VA budget. The bill also provides advance appropriations for 2011.
Legislative Goals: The Committee has managed an aggressive legislative agency to address veterans' health care needs, focusing on improving services for female veterans, providing better caregiver support, and updating VA research practices. The Committee has passed legislation that would provide improved insurance options for veterans and their family, expand grants for housing improvements for disabled veterans, and strengthen programs to support returning veterans.
Ending Veteran Homelessness: The Committee joins President Obama in a renewed commitment to ending veteran homelessness. The House passed legislation to address the urgent and immediate need to target high risk veterans with early intervention programs and provide on-going evaluation and support. We share your commitment to strengthen national efforts to prevent America's heroes from becoming homeless in the first place.
Electronic Medical Records: The Committee continues to examine the progress being made by the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs in ensuring electronic health record interoperability. President Obama ordered the DoD and the VA to work together to define and build a Joint Virtual Lifetime Electronic record that will ultimately contain administrative and medical information from the day an individual enters military service throughout their military career, and into the veteran phase of life. This information sharing is a matter of life and death for our veterans.
Address the Claims Backlog: The Committee continues to hold hearings on the disability claims processing system. We must find innovative ways to streamline the claims processing system and deal with the increasing backlog of veteran claims. We must keep the promises made to America's veterans and tackle the claims backlog that stymies our wounded veterans from receiving the benefits they earned and deserve.
Agent Orange: There are tens of thousands of Agent Orange claims pending. For some, it has been 30 or 40 years in the fight for their benefits. We ought to honor all those Agent Orange claims now -- which is why I introduced H.R. 2254, the Agent Orange Equity Act. If you were there, you should get care. If you have been affected by Agent Orange, then we should take care of that -- TODAY!
Commander, I look forward to hearing the views and estimates of The American Legion.