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Public Statements

Statements On Introduced Bills and Joint Resolutions

Floor Speech

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Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, as the Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, I have pledged to improve and expand employment training and development programs for our Nation's servicemembers and veterans.

While our country continues with its economic recovery, we must ensure that veterans are not left behind. Veterans possess the skills, the discipline, and the leadership necessary to succeed in a 21st century workforce. Coupled with an array of practical skills, it would seem that transitioning to civilian employment after separation from service would be effortless. Yet we continue to find high unemployment rates among veterans, especially the youngest generation. Through their service and sacrifice, each of our Nation's veterans have earned a fair shot at a job, a fair shot at supporting their families, and a fair shot to prosper and resume their lives back home.

Although unemployment numbers are getting better for everyone, there is still reason for concern and work to be done. The unemployment rate for our youngest veterans, ages 18-24, transitioning from the military, averaged 20 percent in 2012, compared to 15 percent for non-veterans between the ages 18-24. Furthermore, in 2012, the unemployment rate among post-9/11 veterans was nearly 10 percent, while the unemployment rate for all veterans and non-veterans was less than 8 percent. This trend continues into this year, with our younger post-9/11 veterans encountering the most difficulty finding employment.

Businesses in the private sector have shown an interest in hiring veterans, but often find that veterans who apply lack industry specific experience to compete with non-veteran candidates. While it is important to ensure we provide programs to help veterans translate their military skills into the civilian sector, there remains a need to: equip veterans with civilian skills and experience necessary to meet the challenges of competing with those who have years of experience in the civilian workforce; find employers who understand military skills; and assist in helping them to readjust back to their local communities.

The Department of Defense reports that approximately one in five enlisted servicemembers separating from active duty have a military-learned skill that is not easily transferable to a civilian occupation. Many of these servicemembers will need to transition into a civilian career field that is different than their military occupation.

We have a responsibility to those who served in the military, and that includes providing practical solutions. I am proud to introduce legislation, The Veterans Equipped for Success Act of 2013, that would provide our veterans the tools necessary to transition to the civilian workforce.

First, the legislation, establishes a three-year pilot program that will partner certain unemployed veterans with employers in the private-sector. In general, the program will provide employers a wage subsidy, up to 75 percent of the wages paid, capped at $14,000 a year, and incentives to hire these veterans. Not only does the program stimulate job creation, but will provide potentially more than 150,000 veterans with the valuable work experience and civilian skills they need to obtain long-term employment.

Second, The Veterans Equipped for Success Act of 2013 focuses on providing employment opportunities and civilian work experience to our younger veterans ages 18-30. Under another three-year pilot program, up to 50,000 participating veterans, at a time, would be paired with private-sector employers for one year and provided a salary from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Employers would provide veterans mentorship, job shadowing, and valuable civilian work experience, while having the opportunity to learn about the work veterans performed in the military and the skills they acquired. The legislation also helps veterans reintegrate into their communities and give back to other veterans.

We have made a solemn commitment to aid veterans by creating job opportunities and providing them with the necessary skills to succeed. There is clearly a need for improved employment opportunities for veterans, particularly our younger transitioning veterans. This legislation would help veterans meet the challenges of competing in the civilian workforce by filling gaps not addressed by current programs. We owe it to our veterans to ensure they have the opportunity to gain valuable skills and work experience to assist them in successfully transitioning into the civilian workforce.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the Record.

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Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, it is my belief that the inability to provide compensation benefits in a timely manner tarnishes the reputation of the Department of Veterans Affairs and overshadows much of the good work done there. As I have said before, I never want a veteran's negative experience with the claims system to prevent him or her from seeking mental health care or help in battling homelessness. That is why, today, I am introducing the Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013, a bill that would help to provide veterans and their family members with the timely and accurate claims decisions they deserve.

The fact that nearly 70 percent of claims are pending longer than the Department's goal of 125 days is completely unacceptable. VA knows this, and the Department has set ambitious goals, put forward a plan, and has been working hard to transform the compensation claims system. Despite these efforts, it is clear that much work remains to be done. That is why we must continue to work together to find innovative solutions until the claims system is transformed into one fit for the 21st century.

Now is the time to truly apply all of the latest technological advances, the insight and experience of veterans service organizations, the lessons learned from the wealth of studies that have already looked at the claims system, and the resources of the Federal Government to tackle this problem from all angles and to finally make real progress.

The Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013 is a critical part of the solution. This bill is a holistic approach to addressing the challenges of the claims system and would provide long-term reforms that will improve VA's claims process from start to finish--from the regional offices located across the nation to the Board of Veterans' Appeals. I would like to highlight just a few of the important provisions in this legislation.

VA must do a better job of showing not only Congress, but also veterans and their survivors about how VA plans to accomplish the ambitious goal of eliminating the claims backlog by 2015. That is why this bill, for the first time, would require VA to publicly report on a quarterly basis information on both VA's quarterly goals and actual production. This would allow Congress and the public to see both the successes and failures of VA's transformation efforts, measure VA's progress, and allow for quicker course corrections when necessary.

At VA regional offices across this country, employees are trying to adapt to a changing work environment as VA continues its transition to a paperless claims processing system. These employees are given credit for work in a manner that does not accurately reflect the realities of an electronic claims processing system. VA's work credit system also focuses almost exclusively on speed, often to the detriment of quality.

During a hearing held by the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs earlier this year, Mr. Bart Stichman, Joint Executive Director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, commented that ``VA regional office adjudicators prematurely decide claims--without taking the time to obtain and assemble the evidence necessary to properly decide a claim--in an effort to ensure that the average time for deciding an initial claim that is reported to VA managers and Congress is a low number of days.'' I have heard from other veterans service organizations about the need for a cultural change at VA. In order for this change to occur, employees must operate within an environment that accurately reflects the important tasks they are asked to accomplish and an environment that focuses equally on speed and quality.

This bill would facilitate that cultural change through the establishment of a work group designed to reassess the way employees are credited for their work. The work group, tasked with providing solutions, would include the very employees and organizations with the necessary expertise to finally establish a work credit system based on a data driven methodology and one that is updated on a consistent and predictable basis. VA employees, many of whom are veterans themselves, deserve nothing less.

This bill would also address the workforce needs of VA and other Federal agencies with claims adjudication responsibilities. In fiscal year 2012, VA lost approximately 6 percent of its claims staff. This legislation would address employee attrition by establishing a task force to develop a strategic plan and initiate training to support the hiring of veterans in claims processing and adjudication positions throughout the Federal Government. This task force would simultaneously prepare servicemembers for the jobs that consistently need to be filled and create a generation of adjudicators throughout VA who can identify with the experiences of the population they serve.

This bill would address concerns raised by the Disabled American Veterans by ensuring appropriate oversight of the disability examination system and encouraging the use of private medical evidence when appropriate. As Mr. Violante, the National Legislative Director of Disabled American Veterans, pointed out at a Veterans' Affairs hearing on the disability claims system in March, disability benefits questionnaires were ``designed to allow private physicians to submit medical evidence on behalf of veterans they treat in a format that aids rating specialists.'' Making better use of private medical evidence, and awarding appropriate work credit for doing so, would save VA adjudicators precious time, taxpayers the added expense, and would relieve veterans from the stress of excessive medical exams.

While providing veterans with timely and accurate initial claims decisions has been the focus of much attention, I remain very concerned about the staggering number of appeals pending at the Board of Veterans' Appeals. According to the Report of the Chairman of the Board of Veterans' Appeals, there were 45,959 cases pending before the Board at the end of fiscal year 2012. The Chairman's Report also provided the average length of time between the filing of an appeal and the Board's disposition, which was 1,040 days in fiscal year 2012. It is 2 unconscionable that a veteran or a family member had to wait, on average, nearly three years for a decision on an appeal. This bill contains a number of provisions that would improve efficiency at the Board of Veterans' Appeals.

This legislation would expand the use of video hearings in order to serve more veterans, reduce an appellant's wait time for a hearing, and increase efficiency in issuing final decisions on appeals by reducing the number of travel days for employees issuing decisions. However, the right to an in-person hearing would be preserved should the veteran desire such a hearing. This bill would also streamline the appellate process by requiring veterans to more quickly file a notice of disagreement. Many veterans already take quick action but to ensure veterans are protected this legislation would provide a good cause exception in the event a notice of disagreement is not filed in a timely manner, such as in cases where a physical, mental, educational, or linguistic limitation prevented timely filing.

These are just a few of the provisions of this bill, which would positively impact the claims system. This legislation is the result of a collective body of information and insight gathered from Congressional hearings, meetings with veterans service organizations and VA staff, correspondence from veterans, and aggressive oversight by the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The challenges of the claims system are enormously complex and there is no single silver bullet that will magically solve every problem. The Claims Processing Improvement Act of 2013 would, however, provide a number of the solutions necessary to ensure veterans and their family members receive timely and accurate benefit decisions.

Clearly there is much work yet to be done. I ask my colleagues to join with me in working together to find innovative solutions until we have truly created a claims system fit for the 21st century. As a nation we have asked more of these individuals than most of us can comprehend. We must now honor the promise we made as a nation--to take care of those who have taken care of us.

Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.

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