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Hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee - Economic Opportunity and Transition Legislation


Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, Chairman Murray. And welcome to our witnesses -- I appreciate you being here to share your views about the bills on today's agenda.

As we consider the merits of these bills, a good starting point is to look 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 causing any duplication or overlap that can actually increase frustrations for veterans and their families. Also, with the fiscal challenges facing our nation, it's important to understand how much these bills would cost and, for any that will move forward, we must find ways to pay for them.

As for the bills on the agenda, there is one I would like to briefly mention -- S. 3210, which Senator Scott Brown and I introduced. Basically, it would allow the surviving spouse of a veteran who had service-connected disabilities to keep the veteran's business as a "veteran-owned small business" for at least 3 years, so the business would still be eligible for certain contracting preferences. This should give surviving spouses sufficient time to plan for the future of their family-owned businesses after losing their loved ones.

Looking ahead, I expect that several bills I introduced will be on the hearing agenda in two weeks, and I want to briefly discuss that legislation. To start with, S. 1707 would ensure that VA beneficiaries will not lose their rights to own firearms solely because VA finds they are unable to manage their financial affairs. Before their Second Amendment rights could be taken away, there would need to be a finding by a judicial authority that an individual is dangerous -- something that actually bears on whether an individual should have access to firearms.

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 judges must be totally committed to the Court's important work.

Also, 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 -- and 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 out of the VISN headquarters, and limit the number of employees at each VISN headquarters. All of this should make these networks more efficient and allow resources to be reallocated to direct patient care.

Finally, Senator Wyden and I introduced S. 3270, which would create a "look-back" period, so VA can consider whether a pension applicant transferred away assets before seeking those need-based benefits. A GAO investigation -- that Chairman Murray and I requested -- shed light on an entire industry aimed at convincing veterans to move assets in order to qualify for these benefits. This practice can leave elderly veterans without adequate resources in their greatest time of need. So, the 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 and I am glad the Committee will have the opportunity to discuss them at our next hearing. Now, before I turn it back over to you, I do want to address some of the Committee's unfinished business from our last legislative hearing a year ago. What I think is particularly important to mention is the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act.

That bill 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. Unaware of any danger, veterans and their families drank, bathed in, and cooked with the contaminated water.

In the decades after the contaminated wells were shut down, veterans and their families have died or become seriously ill from devastating diseases, such as leukemia, breast cancer, and kidney cancer. It is long past time for the government to step up and provide the health care that these veterans and their families need. Some have waited nearly thirty years for help and they cannot -- and should not -- wait any longer.

I realize that finding ways to pay for this and other worthwhile bills may require difficult choices, in order to focus limited resources where the needs are most urgent. But, with veterans and their families who were exposed to the contamination at Lejeune continuing to suffer and even die, I hope we can come together soon to find solutions.

Madam Chairman, I look forward to discussing the bills on today's agenda and to another productive hearing in two weeks. More importantly, I look forward to working with you and our colleagues to make real progress on behalf of veterans, their families, and their survivors.

I thank the Chair and again thank our witnesses.

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