Mr. RUNYAN. Mr. Chairman, thank you again.
Madam Speaker, I rise in support of H.R. 2349, as amended, the Veterans' Benefits Training Improvement Act of 2011.
There are several components to this legislation, and they are all aimed towards ensuring the veterans' benefits process is more efficient, accountable, and fair for all veterans and their families.
The first piece of this legislation addresses the minimalist approach that the VA has adopted in complying with its employees' skill certification mandate. This section will reverse the current trend within the VA of using the employment certification process solely to increase an employee's pay grade by introducing a pilot program to conduct a biennial assessment for all claims processors and managers. The key to this program's success will be individualized remediation. This will facilitate individual accountability of employees while addressing disparities in experience and training at the pilot sites and eventually throughout the VA.
Section 3 prevents the offset of pension benefits for veterans and their family members due to the receipt of payments by insurance or settlements to reimburse expenses incurred after an accident or theft. This will be accomplished by exempting reimbursements of expenses related to accident, theft, loss, or casualty loss from determinations of annual income.
The next section implements the use of electronic communication within the VA to provide notices of responsibility to claimants. This also removes the administrative provisions which have slowed down the process for veterans' disability claims. In total, this section will increase efficiency and help modernize the VA by authorizing the most effective means available for communication while simultaneously removing administrative redtape.
Section 5 clarifies the meaning of the VA's duty to assist claimants in obtaining evidence needed to verify a claim. As a result, this section establishes a clear and reasonable standard for private record requests as ``not less than two requests.'' In addition, this section will encourage claimants to take a proactive role in the claims process. This, in turn, will have the positive effect of reducing the claims backlog over the long term.
Section 6 corrects a serious concern which has curtailed the Second Amendment rights of many VA beneficiaries. Due to unclear and improper statutory language, under the current system, veterans seeking help managing their financial affairs are categorized as mentally defective. They are then entered into an FBI database which prohibits their ability to legally obtain a firearm. This section would restore these veterans' constitutional rights by requiring such determinations to be made by a judge, magistrate, or other judicial authority to properly determine whether such veterans are, in fact, mentally defective for the purposes of obtaining a firearm.
Section 7 of this bill is designed to protect the veterans from being charged excessive fees for aid in submitting applications to the VA for benefits. Since 2006, there has been an increase in non-accredited individuals, organizations, and private companies that have been taking advantage of veterans by charging fees to assist them with filing claims for veterans' benefits with the VA.
This section reinstates criminal penalties for persons charging veterans unauthorized fees for preparation and filing veterans claims with the VA.
The final section addresses the unrestrained government spending on the part of the VA, which is currently permitted to offer pay increases and bonuses to managers and employees who had been cited for mismanagement and poor performance. At a time when our government must be especially prudent in its management of debt, this section establishes caps for bonuses and performance awards to VA's most senior employees at $2 million a year, a reduction from $3.5 million.
It has been an honor working with my colleagues in a bipartisan manner to move H.R. 2349, as amended, forward. And I thank each Member for their tireless support on behalf of our honored veterans. I ask all of my colleagues to join me in supporting this important legislation.