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Transcript of Town Hall Meeting With Secretary Nicholson, Sen. Obama, and Sen. Durbin

Location: Chicago, IL

MAY 20, 2005

SENATOR OBAMA: Thank you so much. Thank you, everybody. It is wonderful to see this great turnout. Many of you participated in some Town Hall meetings that we had when I was first elected, and one of my first priorities was obtaining a seat on the Veterans Committee, because as I traveled across the state, the thing I consistently saw was that our best and our brightest, having fought for in wars, having provided that enormous devotion to their country were coming back and feeling neglected, feeling mistreated, feeling ignored.
And the thing that I pledged when I was sworn in as the Senator was that if nothing else in the first couple of years in the Senate, I could make absolutely certain that there would have been a strong advocate in the United States Senate.
(Applause from the audience.)
SENATOR OBAMA: It so happened, it so happened that as I was joining the Veterans Committee, that a story broke in the Sun Times indicating that there was a huge discrepancy between disability payments for Illinois veterans relative to veterans in other states. These were not small discrepancies. We're talking about discrepancies on the magnitude of $5,000. And immediately we requested, Senator Durbin and myself, meeting with Secretary Nicholson, to not only find out why this had occurred, but more importantly how we were going to solve it.
I am grateful for Secretary Nicholson on following through on his pledge to come and report directly to Illinois veterans. And I am grateful to the IG's office for conducting their report in a timely fashion. But the purpose of the meeting today is not only to go over what has happened in the past, it is to make absolutely certain that it never happens again.
(Applause from the audience.)
SENATOR OBAMA: That's going to be our top priority. I just want to I have a visual here, just to underscore what Senator Durbin talked about. This is a chart that was included in the report, Review of State Variances in VA Disability Compensation Payments. This is contained in the report prepared by the IG.
The first year, 1985, go back all the way up to 2000. If you look from 1985 to 2004, Illinois ranks 50th every single year, each and every year. It is not 49 some years, it is not 42nd some years, it is every single year it is number 50.
Now, as Senator Durbin indicated, it appears that there have been some improvements in terms of new claims. If you were lucky enough to file your claim in the last year or the last two years or the last three years, then it appears based on the report prepared by the IG that you have a good likelihood of doing relatively well if you're an Illinois veteran.
But one of the critical issues that I think, Mr. Secretary, we're going to need to talk about today is what happens to all the veterans who filed their claims during this 20 year period.
(Applause from the audience.)
SENATOR OBAMA: How can we make them whole. I know based on some of the statements that were made yesterday that the Veterans Administration has as a matter of policy the ability of every veteran to appeal their claims. But from my perspective, at least, and I think Senator Durbin shares this view, it is not sufficient to say to veterans who may have been shortchanged for 20 years, well, you can go through the same process all over again, wait for the same number of years as you went through before, and potentially get the same results.
It strikes me that there should be some way to expedite and review what happened during this 20 year period in order to make certain that people are treated fairly, and they don't have to wait.
Let me just close by saying this, because we want to leave sufficient time for the Secretary and for your questions. If you look structurally at what is happening in the Office here in Chicago and in Illinois, what is clear is that despite the fine work of many officers who are working within Veterans Affairs, they are understaffed, they are not able to produce timely and accurate reports, they are not able to do the job that needs to be done on behalf of veterans.
Now, the President issued the budget in which he said we don't need more money for the VA. And you know, as Senator Durbin said, this is not something that you caused. You just came in. And so I'm not holding you responsible for what has happened in the past, but my understanding at least was, and you testified before my Committee, I was sitting there, that we have adequate resources to meet the challenges.
I guess my point is that if we've got the majority of your own employees indicating that we are not sufficiently staffed in order to provide timely service to these veterans, then it seems to me that we've got to come up with the resources to make sure that we fix that system.
(Applause from the audience.)
SENATOR OBAMA: If we don't, if we don't, then what I fear will happen is that we will have some nice words at this meeting today, but three years, four years when the cameras aren't here and the newspapers aren't around, we start slipping back into the same situation that we have had for the last two decades, and that's what I want to prevent.
So I hope that there is going to be in your responses some structural issues that are addressed in terms of how we can improve what happens in Chicago, what happens in Illinois, to make certain that our veterans, who have done such great service for all of us, that we are repaying the debt that we owe each and everyone of them.
Thank you very much, everybody.
(Applause from the audience.)


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