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Hearing of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee - Pending Benefits Legislation


Location: Washington, DC

Good morning, Chairman Sanders. Welcome to our witnesses. Thank you for being here to share your views regarding the bills on today's agenda.

When we consider what bills to advance, we should first look at whether there are gaps or inefficiencies in current programs that should be fixed. That will help us identify changes that are truly needed and help ensure that we do not add to the duplication among programs that can lead to frustrations for veterans and their families. We must also understand the costs of needed changes and find ways to pay for them.

Mr. Chairman, I have introduced a number of bills that I believe will fit within that framework. To start with, S. 495 would take steps to address the high unemployment rate among veterans. Federal agencies would be required to hire 10,000 veterans to fill existing job vacancies, using a hiring authority that will put them on a path to a career.

Also, veterans could use their military training to obtain a license or credential they need for a civilian occupation. They would simply need to pass a test, rather than going through repetitive training or apprenticeships. Together with changes affecting veteran-owned small businesses, this bill should help veterans succeed in today's job market.

Another bill, S. 572, would protect the Second Amendment rights of veterans and their families. Now, if VA finds that they need help with their finances, VA sends their names to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which prevents them from buying or owning firearms. To try to retain their Second Amendment rights, they can seek relief from VA and prove that they are not a risk to public safety. But, as we'll discuss later, it is clear that VA's relief process does not offer sufficient protections.

So, under this bill -- which has been approved three times by the Committee on a bipartisan basis -- VA beneficiaries would not be sent to the NICS list, unless a judicial authority finds that they are dangerous. That would put the decision about Constitutional rights in an appropriate forum and base it on relevant questions.

Another bill, S. 705, would recognize that many servicemembers, veterans, and their families have strong religious convictions, by making clear that religious symbols may be a part of military memorials.

Then, S. 748 would create a "look-back" period, so VA could consider if someone applying for need-based pension recently transferred away assets. I spoke about this issue before the Aging Committee last year and would ask that a copy of that testimony be placed in our record. As that hearing highlighted, there is an entire industry aimed at convincing veterans to move assets in order to artificially qualify for pension benefits.

That practice undermines the integrity of a need-based program. But, what's worse, it can leave elderly veterans without adequate resources in their greatest time of need. So, this bill aims to strengthen the pension program for those who need it and to discourage companies from preying on veterans who do not.

Finally, S. 819 would initiate a program to focus on treating post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety disorder and incentivize wellness, by paying veterans a monthly stipend while they undergo treatment. This bill is based on a simple idea -- that treating those conditions will lead to a better quality of life for thousands of veterans.

In exchange for the wellness stipend, some veterans participating in the program may agree to hold off pursuing a disability claim for one year. But, there is no requirement that the veteran's disability rating be revisited at the end of the program. If the treatment works, hopefully these veterans will have better lives. That's the only goal of this bill.

Mr. Chairman, I look forward to working with you to advance these and other bills that would help to improve the lives of veterans, their families, and their survivors.

I thank the Chair.

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