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Hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee - Health and Benefits Legislation

Statement

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, Chairman Murray. Welcome to our witnesses and thank you for being here. Also, I want to welcome Senator Wyden, who will be testifying about a bill we recently introduced to strengthen VA's pension program.

Before turning to today's agenda, I want to say a few words about the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act, which would provide health care for veterans and their families who were stationed at Camp Lejeune when the water was contaminated with known or probable human carcinogens. I am very pleased that we have made progress on this bill in recent weeks, and I hope it will soon pass, so we can finally provide these veterans and their families with the care they need and deserve.

As we consider other bills today -- particularly any that create or expand programs -- we should start by looking at how well existing programs are working and identify any gaps or inefficiencies. That should help us focus on changes that are truly needed and avoid creating any more duplication or overlap that can end up frustrating veterans and their families. Also, with the fiscal challenges facing our nation, we need to know the costs of these bills and, for any that will move forward, we must find ways to pay for them.

With all that in mind, I look forward to a productive discussion about the bills on today's agenda. To start with, I'd like to mention several of those bills that I sponsored. One is S. 1707, which would end the unfair process that strips veterans and their families of the right to own firearms if VA believes they need help with their finances. Under this bill, the Second Amendment rights of a VA beneficiary could not be taken away unless a judicial authority finds that the individual is dangerous. This would put the decision about Constitutional rights in an appropriate forum and base it on relevant questions.

Another bill, S. 2045, would require judges of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims to live within 50 miles of the Court's office -- a requirement that already applies to other federal judges. This should increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the Court, by encouraging the judges to be present and personally engaged on a daily basis. It would also emphasize that the judges must be totally committed to the Court's important work.

Then, S. 3084 would reform VA's Veterans Integrated Service Networks -- or VISNs. In 1995, the veterans health care system was divided into 22 geographic areas -- now 21 VISNs. Each region had its own headquarters with a limited management structure to support the medical facilities in that region. Since then, there has been a huge growth in staff at the VISN headquarters and increasing duplication in the duties they carry out.

So, this bill would consolidate the boundaries of nine VISNs, move some oversight functions away from VISN management, and limit the number of employees at each VISN headquarters. All of this should make these networks more efficient and should allow resources to be reallocated to direct patient care.

One other, S. 3202, is a bill Chairman Murray and I introduced to give VA the tools to help ensure that veterans and servicemembers are laid to rest with dignity and respect. By granting VA the authority to purchase caskets or urns when they otherwise would not be provided, veterans buried in national cemeteries can be laid to rest in a manner befitting their service.

Finally, S. 3270 would create a "look-back" period, so VA can consider whether someone applying for need-based pension has recently transferred away assets. As the Government Accountability Office highlighted, there is an entire industry aimed at convincing veterans to move assets around in order to artificially qualify for pension benefits.

That practice not only undermines the integrity of the pension program, but can leave elderly veterans without adequate resources in their greatest time of need. So, this bill aims to strengthen VA's pension program, while discouraging companies from preying on elderly veterans.

Madam Chairman, all of these bills would provide common-sense solutions to real issues affecting our nation's veterans, their families, and their survivors. I look forward to working with you and our colleagues to see that these and other worthwhile bills on today's agenda soon become law. And, again, I want to stress how pleased I am that the full Senate may soon have the opportunity to pass the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act.

I thank the Chair.


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