Today we honor our brave veterans, service members, and fallen heroes who have given their lives for the cause of freedom. More than 170,000 New Mexico veterans have defended our nation with extraordinary valor and distinction.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, young Navajo men crowded recruiting offices, eager to serve this country, including Chester Nez -- one of the 29 original Code Talkers who passed away in this past June. Under hostile fire, the Navajo Code Talkers’ unbreakable code was one of the most indispensable tools in World War II. These marines returned home quietly, their mission kept secret. They received no recognition until their operations were declassified more than two decades later. Many of their descendants live in Gallup and across McKinley County.
For past generations of former service members and those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, our highest priority is to assist their transition into civilian life and ensure they receive their benefits and services earned defending our nation.
Part of fulfilling America’s promise to our veterans is to provide them with immediate and unparalleled quality health care. That’s why I’ve worked to improve veterans’ access to health services at VA clinics and hospitals in New Mexico.
In response to the unacceptable wait times veterans faced to see a doctor, I cosponsored the Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act, a bill – signed into law – to give VA the resources it needs to reduce appointment wait times. The proposal will allow VA medical facilities in New Mexico to hire more doctors and nurses, and it provides veterans the option to receive private care outside VA facilities if timely VA care isn't available.
This meaningful proposal was a major step in the effort to increase accountability, transparency, and restore confidence in addressing the mismanagement and systemic problems at the VA.
Working with the VA to strengthen health care services and fix the chronic infrastructure problems of New Mexico’s Community-Based Outpatient clinics is also one of my highest priorities.
With help from veterans, military families, local officials, and community members, we opened two new clinics in Raton and Santa Fe. Both are larger than their previous facilities with greater access to quality health care, primary mental health, and telemedicine services.
Those new, modern facilities are exactly what New Mexico veterans deserve – and we’re just getting started. A new VA community outpatient clinic in Gallup is currently under construction and scheduled to open its doors in March 2015. When completed, it would be over 2,000 square feet larger than the current facility and serve 1,300 veterans.
I’m also working to reduce the disability claims backlog. The Veterans Benefits Claims Faster Filing Act is a proposal I helped introduced to ease the process of filing a disability claim. The bill requires the Veterans Benefits Administration, an agency under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to provide veterans with accurate information for faster filing options.
The proposal would assist veterans file claims online through the Fully Developed Claims (FDC) program, instead of filing a paper claim, which accelerates turnaround times and makes processing more efficient. And when a veteran files through FDC they are eligible to receive up to an extra year of benefits.
Few sacrifices are as selfless as those our military service men and women make in defense of our country. We owe them, our veterans, and military families more than a debt of gratitude -- we owe them action in both our words and deeds.
On this Veterans Day, let us reaffirm our promise to our returning troops and their families and remember that our commitments to those who have served are commitments we must honor not only today, but every day.
If you are a veteran or a beneficiary who is experiencing trouble filing a claim, receiving benefits, accessing health benefits, or appealing an outcome, I urge you to contact my Farmington office at (505) 325-5030 or visit www.heinrich.senate.gov/helping-you/veterans-resources on my website. My office has opened and closed more than 340 VA cases across New Mexico and has helped many veterans in McKinley and San Juan Counties with casework. Please contact my staff so we may assist you.
It is an honor and privilege to serve you in the United States Senate.