Mr. CARDIN. Mr. President, I rise today on behalf of the 470,000 Maryland veterans in order to thank my colleagues for making veterans’ health care a priority by passing S. 2450, the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act of 2014. I specifically applaud the Chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee – Senator Sanders – and Senator John McCain for developing this bipartisan agreement and demonstrating to the Nation that the Congress can work together to meet our greatest challenges.
I want to thank President Obama and Acting Secretary Gibson for taking preliminary action and holding senior Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) leadership accountable. Now, the hard work begins of renewing and meeting our commitments to our veterans who have sacrificed so much for our Nation. I support this bill’s efforts to provide immediate authority to refer veterans to non-VA care and its provisions addressing common-sense long-term reform. Much of the treatment our veterans need is already provided in world-class facilities that are closer to their homes than the nearest VA Hospital, and they stand ready to support them today.
I am concerned that the expedited firing provision for Senior Executive Service employees creates a separate process for VA staff employee. Let me be clear: anyone guilty of fraud, malfeasance, or criminal negligence must be held accountable. But current law and Office of Personnel Management policy provide measures to address such acts. Federal employees deserve the appropriate due process.
This bill is an exceptional step in the right direction and will begin to address some of the concerns we all have with respect to the VA, beginning with access to care. But there is still much work to do to help our veterans return to civilian life after they have served. A mere thank-you is of little comfort to a veteran who cannot find meaningful employment, who is struggling to provide for his or her family, or who is dealing with post-traumatic stress. Their sacrifices are often made in stressful, frustrating, and dangerous conditions. Yet these brave men and women do not shy away from committing themselves to serving our country.
Disability claims at the VA are continuing to take far too long to be processed, and the backlog is denying support to veterans who are in critical need due to service-related injuries. I will continue to push for an amendment that will make the Fully Developed Claims program permanent. The Fully Developed Claims program is an optional new initiative that offers veterans and survivors faster decisions from the VA on compensation, pension, and survivor benefit claims. Veterans and survivors must simply submit all relevant records in their possession and those records which are easily obtainable, such as private medical records, at the time they make their claim and certify that they have no further evidence to submit. Then, the VA can review and process the claims more quickly. This program is realizing much improved processing time due to the extraordinary partnership with numerous Veterans Service Organizations, but I propose we make a guarantee to our veterans that if they utilize this program, the VA will provide their final rating in an expedited manner, or they will receive a provisional rating at 180 days. This is the level of commitment from Congress that the American people expect and our veterans deserve.
A true marker of our Nation’s worth is our willingness to serve those who have served us. As we continue to wind down our commitments in Afghanistan after 13 years of war, we need to gear up our commitment to our veterans. Our veterans deserve every possible tool we can provide to help ease their transition to civilian life. I am committed to making sure that our veterans receive the services and benefits they have earned and the support they were promised and deserve. The United States is the strongest nation in the world because of our veterans, and we owe them and their families our gratitude and our respect and, most important, our support.
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