Welcome to the newly elected National Commander of The American Legion, Jimmie L. Foster. I would also like to welcome the National President of The American Legion Auxiliary, Carlene Ashworth. Thank you for your advocacy for veterans.
Joint hearings are a long tradition of the Veterans' Affairs Committees and I am happy that you are here today. It is an honor for Senator Akaka and me to hear the views of The American Legion and its 2.5 million members. The information provided here today is vital as the committee addresses the pressing needs of all our nation's veterans.
Before we start, I would like to extend my complements to your Washington staff and to tell you, Commander, what a pleasure it is to work with them. I would also like to take a moment to recognize those in the audience who traveled here from California. If there are others here from California today, would you please raise your hand? Thank you all for coming -- it is great to see you here today.
We must continue to work together to provide our veterans with the quality health care and services that they require, and that they have earned. The Committee is charged with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA's budget. This is a duty that we do not take lightly and we constantly strive to improve services and benefits for veterans.
I spoke with many of you in Milwaukee, earlier this month. I told you about the aggressive agenda we have taken on as a committee in support of our veterans over the last three and a half years and, I want to THANK YOU for your support and your willingness to help us care for those who have served this nation proudly.
Care for ALL Veterans
When I became Chairman of the Committee, the VA was strained to its breaking point. There are hundreds of thousands of new veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been an incredible experience to be able to see these young men and women, and try to make sure we continue to take care of them when they get home.
But, at the same time we have older veterans, whether it's World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Desert Shield, and Desert Storm. Their needs are increasing, so there is this dual kind of pressure on the VA, and we must care for all of our veterans.
Earlier this year, Congress passed the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010. One of the things this bill does is it creates a program to offer caregiver training to those amazing folks across the country that care for our veterans. The bill also provides access to mental health counseling and 24-hour respite care in the veteran's home for the caregiver.
The Caregivers Act also allows eligible veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom to select a caregiver to receive a financial stipend along with travel and lodging expenses associated with the veteran's care.
Since becoming Chairman in 2007, the House of Representatives has voted to add $23 billion dollars worth of new money for the health care of our veterans -- a 60% increase in discretionary funding! This increase is unprecedented in VA history and it is possible because of the support of the American people. And, you, Legionnaires, are our front line to making us aware as to whether they are taking care of veterans. Now, our job on the Veterans' Affairs Committee is to make sure the VA spends that budget increase efficiently and effectively.
Going one step further, the Democratic Congress secured "advance appropriations' for veterans health care funding.
For the first time, Congress wrote and approved two budgets: the first for fiscal year 2010 and the second for fiscal year 2011. Veterans' health care is no longer subject to political or legislative delay and our local VA hospitals can now rely on a stable and uninterrupted source of funding.
ACCESS to Health Care:
My number one priority is to secure greater access to quality VA health care for veterans who need it. The first National Defense Authorization Act passed by Democrats provided an additional three years of VA health care eligibility for returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- for a total of five years. That same bill incorporated Wounded Warrior Act provisions to improve treatments for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury.
Increasing the budget baseline allowed VA to treat 193,000 new veterans and has plans to enroll an additional 99,000 veterans in the VA health care system.
Urgent Mental Health Needs and Suicide Prevention
Our veterans are returning from war with invisible wounds that are painful and need treatment. As a nation, we have to get this right. We already have reports of Iraqi veterans who are homeless on the street. There are approximately 18 deaths per day by suicide of American veterans. The VA receives 1,500 phone calls each week from veterans seeking help on its suicide hotline and they address 1,000 suicide attempts per month.
Earlier this year, the VA simplified the process for a veteran to claim service connection for post-traumatic stress disorder. This important change will help combat veterans get the immediate help they need. Now, proof of service in uniform in a war zone, combined with a later diagnosis of PTSD, will be all that is required.
We all know how important the G.I. Bill was in 1944. I am here because of the G.I. Bill. My father got some education on the G.I. Bill and he was also able to buy a new house. For the first time in my family's history, we were a part of the middle class. Eight million veterans took advantage of the G.I. Bill benefits.
Congress just passed an educational benefits package that brings us up to the 21st Century. Since August 2009, the VA has issued Post-9/11 G.I. Bill benefits to more than 275,000 individuals, delivered $2.1 billion in education benefits to veteran students, and paid $1.6 billion to schools.
Congress finally succeeded in increasing the benefit to cover the full cost of college, making the benefits more flexible for short term courses, making the National Guard and Reserves eligible for the benefits in a way they were before, and ensuring the program is flexible, so if the benefits are not used by the veteran they can be passed along to the spouse or children.
Strong VA Home Loan Program
Veterans from World War II had access to a valuable home loan program that, over time, had become obsolete. Last Congress, we were able to enact sweeping legislation to revamp and update this benefit.
Congress increased the VA home loan limit to better match current home prices and eliminated the equity requirement for veterans opting to refinance into a VA loan. We also voted to protect returning service members and veterans by prohibiting foreclosure for nine months after combat duty.
The recent mortgage crisis has greatly affected our service members and veterans, and often they are in this particular situation as a result of their service to our country. In this time of crisis, veterans ought to be able to turn to the VA for assistance. Congress has already passed a law protecting active duty troops from foreclosure for one year after they return from a tour of duty. We have made some progress, but there is much more to do.
We must solve the disability claims problem at the VA. I hate the use the IRS as an example, but this formerly dysfunctional agency now delivers your tax refund within three weeks, although it is subject to audit. Why don't we do that in the VA? If your claim was prepared or assisted by a veterans' service officer, the VA should grant your claim and it should be subject to audit. Let's assume that our veterans are honest and honor those that have served. Get the check out to the veteran, subject to audit.
Congress continues to focus added attention on the disgraceful claims backlog by adding staff to reduce the time to process new claims. Already, the VA has hired 8,300 additional claims processors.
The Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008 provides essential reforms to bring the claims processing system up-to-date for more accurate and timely delivery of benefits to veterans, families, and survivors.
The Committee continues to monitor the on-going implementation of this comprehensive legislation.
More Illnesses Connected to Agent Orange
Earlier this month, the VA published a new rule to expand the list of health problems VA will presume to be related to Agent Orange exposure by adding three new conditions -- B cell leukemia, Parkinson's Disease, and ischemic heart disease -- based on the latest evidence provided by the Institute of Medicine. As a result, veterans who were physically stationed in Vietnam will no longer have to prove an association between these illnesses and their military service.
Unfortunately, a certain group of Vietnam veterans will not be treated or compensated. VA continues to use an arbitrary requirement that only veterans that actually stepped "foot on land" in Vietnam can qualify, effectively excluding veterans who served on the blue waters and in the blue skies of Vietnam. I strongly urge VA to reverse its decision now and compensate these deserving veterans.
Time is of the essence for many Vietnam veterans currently suffering from illness as a result of their service and that is why I introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act. This bill, H.R. 2254, will remove this arbitrary requirement and provide equity for our combat veterans, their families, and survivors.
Commander, I look forward to hearing the Views and Estimates of The American Legion.