Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, and good morning to everyone here today -- especially those in the audience from California.
It is great to see all of you. I welcome you and your members to Washington and thank you for being here today and for the hard work that you do on behalf of our nation's veterans, their families and survivors.
First, I want to thank the panel and all the delegates here for the diligent and hard work of your Washington staff.
They continue to keep us informed on the legislative priorities of your organizations.
Many here today have been active in the Partnership for Veterans Health Care Budget Reform, a group that led the fight to get advanced funding for VA health care. We now know that this change means real change in the stability of funding and the quality of care. I was proud to lead that charge in Congress along with the Administration.
We received the 2012 budget from the President, as usual, but for the first time we also received the medical budget for 2013.
Now we can plan to ensure the availability of quality health care. Thank you for all of your hard work to achieve this landmark victory for veterans' budget reform.
For VA discretionary programs, the Administration requested $58.8 billion, an increase of $2.1 billion, or 3.7 percent, over the expected fiscal year 2011 level of $56.7 billion. This is an increase of $2.3 billion over expected fiscal year 2011 levels.
Overall funding has increased in the past two years more than it has in decades. This Administration has shown that supporting the troops and the veterans is not just a slogan--it's a mandate.
While I have some questions regarding some of the assumptions and estimates that underlie the Administration's request, if Secretary Shinseki tells me that this is what is needed to get the job done in the coming fiscal year, then I will offer my whole hearted support. With one caveat: Ask for what you need, but need what you ask for.
I firmly believe that you should request what you need, and that you need every dollar that you request. We have to make sure -- as the Committees of oversight in both the Senate and the House -- that the money is spent effectively and efficiently
Friends, the cost of war is high. The cost of two wars is even higher. Not just in lives lost, but in the aftermath. Too many veterans remain uncompensated for their service, and there is much we still need to do to keep the promises made to today's fighting troops.
Meeting the needs of America's veterans is a fundamental cost of war -- and remains a top priority of mine.
Last May, Public law 111-163, the Caregivers and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act, was signed into law. This legislation required the Department to implement a comprehensive program of assistance for family caregivers.
This is a very important and needed program. However, VA has yet to implement it. Furthermore, they have narrowed the eligibility for participation in the program from about 3500 caregivers to somewhere around 800 to a 1,000.
This is a disappointment to many of us and we will ensure that as we move forward with the implementation, that VA does get it right.
Our intent was clear when we passed this legislation and we will not allow for that intent to be skewed in any way.
Additionally, as with the caregiver legislation, we recognize that much work remains to be done in ensuring that those transitioning from military life to civilian life do not encounter insurmountable barriers as they reintegrate back into society.
One of the biggest barriers to that reintegration is access to mental health care for the returning member and his family.
According to the latest Health Care Utilization report published by the Department, mental health disorders remains the second leading reason veterans of the current conflicts access VA health care.
As always, addressing the unique needs of women veterans remains a top priority as does ensuring that we finally do prevent veterans' homelessness.
We have heard from many of your organizations that fixing the disability claims process is a must. I could not agree with you more! It is a disgrace that we have such a large claims backlog, and it is an insult to the veterans, to all of you who have served our Nation.
We are supposed to be the most technologically proficient Nation in the world, and yet we cannot seem to get our claims process under control to deliver these benefits in a 21st Century manner.
I continue to press VA to change the whole entire adversarial paradigm and to transform into the advocacy system for wounded and disabled veterans as it was intended to do. VA should mean Veterans' Advocate, not Veterans' adversary.
While VA is showing promise on this front, I believe that we need to attack the backlog with a long-term strategy and a short-term strategy.
For the long-term, I think we need to continue the reform work and oversight from the past four years and as included in P.L. 110-389, the Veterans' Benefits Improvement Act of 2008. We should convene another summit of all of the stakeholders and figure out how to make this work.
In the short-term, I think we need to admit that we cannot dig ourselves out without something drastic and I think that is the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) model.
We've added over 10,000 new claims processors and the backlog has doubled. This is not a people problem. The backlog is a symptom, not the problem.
This system is fatally flawed, that is the problem-- as VA's Information Technology person pointed out to us.
Grant these pending claims and audits a percentage late -- instead of letting so many veterans and survivors die while waiting for their benefits.
Also under my tenure as Chairman, I had the privilege of helping to overhaul the G.I. Bill for the first time in decades.
The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill does some things that have never been done before. First, the Reserves and National Guard, who have been doing half the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, now have access to the full privileges and benefits of the G.I. Bill.
We've made additional changes to include long-distance learning, on-the-job training, and apprenticeship, just to name a few. And, now spouses can use the benefit as well. With new job creation being a challenge for our nation right now, access to higher education is even more critical than ever before.
To all of you in attendance today, thank you for what you do for America's fighting men and women and their families.
I look forward to hearing your statements on the VA budget for fiscal year 2012, as well as the other legislative priorities of your organizations.
Thank you, Madam Chairwoman, I yield back my time.