Washington D.C – At today’s hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on legislation pending before the Committee, Ranking Member Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) offered the following remarks:
“Good morning, Madam Chairman, and welcome to all of our witnesses. I particularly want to welcome Jerry Ensminger, from my home state of North Carolina. Thank you for being here and for your advocacy on behalf of veterans and their families who were put at risk while the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated.
I also want to note that, once again, the Administration failed to submit testimony on time. Although VA made efforts to ensure that the Committee had relevant information ahead of time, we did not receive views from the Department of Labor until less than 24 hours ago. Madam Chairman, this cannot be allowed to continue.
Before I discuss a few bills of interest to me, I want to talk generally about the path forward. This legislative hearing is one step in figuring out whether the 35 bills on the agenda should be advanced by this Committee at a markup later this month. These bills would collectively spend billions of dollars, to expand or modify existing veterans’ programs and, in some cases, to create new ones.
As we examine each bill, I think it’s important to keep in mind that our nation is faced with staggering deficits and debt and is on a fiscal path that is simply unsustainable. At the same time, the Government Accountability Office has been telling us that there is duplication, fragmentation, and overlap in federal programs government wide. According to GAO, reducing or eliminating overlap could actually help agencies provide better services and save billions of dollars each year.
So, as we consider whether to create or expand veterans’ programs, we should start by taking a serious look at what programs already exist and how well they are working. We also should look at whether reducing any duplication could make existing services more effective and more efficient.
This would help us narrow in on what legislative changes are actually needed to improve benefits and services for veterans, their families, and their survivors. In addition, I hope it would help us avoid a situation like we discussed at recent Committee hearings, where efforts to solve problems facing transitioning servicemembers seem to have created more bureaucracy, without improving services to our nation’s wounded warriors.
Finally, we need to understand the costs of any legislative changes and, more importantly, we must figure out how we would pay for them. I will not shy away from providing those who have served and sacrificed for our nation with the benefits and services they need and deserve. But, I also want to make sure we pay for these benefits and services by cutting other spending, so that we don’t continue to saddle future generations of Americans with enormous financial burdens.
Turning to today’s agenda, I want to mention three bills I’ve introduced. The first is the Caring for Camp Lejeune Veterans Act of 2011. As we discussed at other hearings, the water at Lejeune was contaminated with known or probable human carcinogens for decades. Unaware of the danger, servicemembers and their families drank, bathed in, and cooked with that water.
Unfortunately, some of them have become seriously ill or have died from devastating conditions, like rare cancers. Today, we’ll hear one heartbreaking account of a child, Jerry’s daughter, who was born at Lejeune while the water was contaminated and tragically died of leukemia at the age of nine.
To try to provide some answers about why Jerry’s daughter and others have become sick, studies are underway to gauge how much of the dangerous chemicals they were exposed to and how it impacted their health. But, those who were put at risk should not have to wait for these studies before VA will provide them with care. We should make sure they can get the treatment they need now, to combat any adverse effects from these toxins.
To that end, this bill would allow veterans to get medical care from VA if they were stationed at Lejeune when the water was contaminated. It would also allow their families who lived on the base to receive care for conditions that can be associated with the contaminated water. After hearing Jerry’s painful story, I hope my colleagues will agree that this is the right thing to do. Families like Jerry’s have already waited too long for the answers they deserve and the help they may need.
Another bill I introduced, S. 423, would help deal with the backlog of claims at VA. If a veteran gathers up any necessary evidence before sending a claim to VA, the bill would allow benefits to be paid for up to one year before that claim was submitted. This would ensure that veterans will not lose out on any benefits while putting together a fully-developed claim and would allow VA to provide faster decisions on their claims.
Finally, S. 928 would ensure that, if VA realizes “bid savings” on major construction projects, there will be more Congressional oversight as to how those funds are used. With the large backlog of medical construction projects at VA, it is important to prioritize every available construction dollar, regardless of its source.
I look forward to discussing these and other bills with our witnesses today. More importantly, I look forward to working with my colleagues, the Administration, veterans groups, and other stakeholders to improve the effectiveness of existing veterans’ programs, to figure out what legislative changes are truly needed, and to find the best ways to pay for those changes.
I thank the Chair and again thank our witnesses.”