Good morning everyone. First, I want to thank all of you for coming here today.
In the interest of time, after hearing from Chairman Murray, ranking member Filner, and ranking member Burr, I would like to ask committee members to waive their opening statements. There will be an opportunity for remarks during the question and answer period following today's testimony.
Hearing no objections, so ordered.
It is my honor to be here this morning and a source of inspiration every time I look out into a crowd and see some of our nation's most dedicated and honorable citizens serving here as a voice to veterans across this great land. It is my hope that we can use today as an opportunity to better support our nation's veterans.
To all of you who have traveled here today, I thank you for making the trip to Washington to share your legislative agenda with our committees and the Congress, and more importantly for your continued service and dedication to help better the lives of our veterans, their families, and survivors.
All have sacrificed on behalf of our nation and each of you here today represents those we honor, including veterans who put this country first; those who have been wounded in the line of the duty; and those we have lost.
I also welcome our guests present today who comprise the national auxiliary commanders. Thank you for being here today and for all of the good work that members of the auxiliary do for our country.
I would also like to take a moment to recognize the members of the different organizations who - like myself - are proud to call Florida home. Gentlemen and ladies, would you please stand.
I am pleased to be joined by my colleagues from across the aisle and across the capitol including Ranking Member Filner, Ranking Member Burr, and members of both the House and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committees.
In particular, I want to extend a warm welcome to Chairman Patty Murray of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Senator Murray, it was a pleasure to work with you last year in constructing and passing the V.O.W. to Hire Heroes Act of 2012.
I look forward to working further with you this year to help our nation's veterans.
Before we begin today, I ask that everyone turn their attention to the center of the room. As part of a longstanding military tradition, as long as I am Chairman, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will display an empty chair draped with the P.O.W./M.I.A. flag at every hearing.
This chair is to be a daily reminder of the more than 83,000 servicemembers who have yet to return and represents our hope that they will come home to us one day.
With that, will everyone who is able, please stand and direct your attention to the empty chair before me.
Today as patriotic Americans who are grateful to those who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice, this Ccommittee pauses to recognize the plight and circumstance of a unique group of Americans. They are our prisoners of war and missing in action. From this day forward, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs will remember this through the placement of a P.O.W./M.I.A. empty chair at all official meetings.
This chair will serve as a physical symbol of the thousands of American P.O.W./M.I.A.s still unaccounted for from all wars and conflicts involving the United States of America.
This is a reminder for all of us to spare no effort to secure the release of any American prisoners from captivity, the repatriation of the remains of those who died bravely in defense of liberty, and a full accounting of those missing.
I now call upon Vice Commander Charles Susino of the American Ex-Prisoners of War, to lead us in the pledge of allegiance.
The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs has been working on several fronts to address the many needs of our nation's veterans, and there are three specific areas I would like to discuss with you this morning.
First is the critical need to increase veteran employment around the country. Second is overseeing substantive change to the VA benefits process with the end goal of ending the backlog of disability claims. The third and most recent issue is ensuring your medical care and benefits are protected from the reach of sequestration cuts to the federal budget.
I am proud to report substantial progress being made on all three fronts.
Several months ago congress passed into law the bipartisan V.O.W. to Hire Heroes Act of 2012, a comprehensive veterans retraining and employment package which, among other things, provide nearly 100,000 unemployed veterans with the skills they need to find meaningful employment in today's economy.
This legislation aims to provide both long term and short term employment for all veterans. I would like to thank each of your organizations for your support in enabling this legislation to be passed and enacted into the law of the land.
In addition, as I mentioned before, another area needing critical attention is the backlog of disability claims. A dramatic reduction in this backlog is fundamentally important, if for no other reason than to ensure the promise our country made to each of our servicemen and women who defended our freedoms is fulfilled.
To this end, I am pleased to see the benefits system being brought into the 21st century with the rollout of the electronic claims processing system throughout the next two years.
While I understand much more needs to be done to fully cure the backlog problem, equipping the Veterans Benefits Administration with modern technology is a solid step in the right direction.
In addition, our committee will continue to place an increased focus on quality of care, with the end goal of ensuring decisions are done correctly the first time.
The last area I'd like to touch on is our collective need to know with absolute certainty that your health care needs and benefits are protected from the reach of sequestration.
As many of you are aware, such a cut would severely impact VA's ability to provide the high quality healthcare America's veterans have earned and deserve. Our government made a commitment to every one of you as you stood ready to defend our great nation.
Since august, when the Budget Control Act of 2011 was passed, I have sought assurances from both Secretary Shinseki and President Obama that VA would be exempt from sequestration, as the law intended.
Unfortunately, we have failed to receive any assurances from the administration that our veterans will be exempt from the negative effects of sequestration.
So let me be clear: we will fight for your rights just as you once fought for ours. As such, I introduced H.R. 3895, the protect VA healthcare act of 2012 (H.R. 3895).
This bill would remedy this issue once and for all and ensure that future generations of veterans are not held hostage to the type of political gamesmanship that i believe is holding up the president's decision.
So I ask you this, as you meet with your representatives, I ask that each of you in our audience ask them to join me in cosponsoring this bill, H.R. 3895, to protect the VA healthcare system on behalf of the men and women serving our nation who have already sacrificed enough.
I want to thank you all again for being here, and I look forward to hearing your recommendations and concerns for the remainder of this legislative session.
Now, I would call on the distinguished chairman of the senate committee veterans' affairs Senator Patty Murray for her opening comments.