Let me thank co-chairs Thompson, Bilirakis, and Peterson for inviting me here. I’m honored and would like to provide a short update and then use most of our time to get to your questions. Thank you for your devotion to our Veterans and your support of VA’s efforts to care for them.
In the past four months, we have begun laying the groundwork for meeting President Obama’s charge to transform VA for the 21st century. We've begun by challenging all the assumptions about what we do, how we spend money, and what the payoffs for the mission will be. We're asking why, 40 years after Vietnam, we're still adjudicating Agent Orange, and why, 20 years after the Gulf War, we're still wrestling with Gulf War illness. We’re asking those questions today so that, 20 years from now, the VA secretary then won’t still be wrestling with claims from Iraq and Afghanistan.
We don’t have all the answers yet, but I would like to give you a quick update on two major initiatives at VA:
New GI Bill: Our plan for the new GI Bill begins with a computer-assisted, manual implementation system for this year, with a move to a fully automated system in 2010. We are on track with the manual system to begin paying claims August 1. We have hired 530 new employees and trained them to process claims; we began processing the 40,000 claims received to date on May 1st. We have also entered into more than 500 agreements with universities across the nation to participate in the Yellow Ribbon program, so that Veterans won’t be limited to in-state public schools.
I am satisfied that we will get Veterans, who apply in time, into school this fall. Though this remains high risk and on my scope daily, because of the compressed timelines between receipt of legislation to execution of payment in early August, if Veterans get their applications in on time, we'll make sure that they get into class
Uniform Registration: There are few higher priorities before us than to ensure a seamless transition from active military service to civilian life. The reality is that service members become eligible for Veterans benefits and services the day they put on the uniform. Long before they leave the service, they are already enrolled in the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) program and some have chosen to use other benefits to buy a house or go to school—all administered by VA. So Secretary Bob Gates and I have agreed to automatically enroll servicemembers into VA, when they first take their oaths of office in uniform.
In April, the President took this agreement and announced a joint initiative to create a lifetime electronic record for members of the armed forces, one that stays with them from the day they put on the uniform to the day they are laid to rest. Our efforts to institute “uniform registration” and create a single electronic record will save us time, improve efficiency and accuracy in administration and healthcare, hopefully reduce costs significantly, and allow us to take down today’s frustrating backlog of claims. Our management decisions will be better, faster, more consistent, and less subject to lost files or destroyed claims. The agreement between Gates and Shinseki is forcing both departments to put their assets and their intellects together to make joint lifetime electronic records a reality.
With those updates, let me now report that our proposed 2010 budget is critical to realizing the President’s vision for a 21st century VA. The proposed budget increases VA’s resources to nearly $113 billion, up 15 percent from our 2009 resource level.
With this budget, VA’s transformation begins by increasing our investment in information technology, by undertaking organizational reforms, by ramping up the training and leader development of our workforce, and by other initiatives to improve the ways in which we serve Veterans.
Information technology enables almost everything we do at Veterans affairs. More than $3.3 billion in funding is needed to support our IT requirements. This allows us to invest in new and emerging technologies to create an informational backbone for efficient, effective, and client-focused services.
The 2010 budget provides resources to establish a new Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction, the importance of which is underscored by the $13 billion-plus in products and services VA contracts for each year.
This budget request funds health care for evolving Veteran demographics. Women Veterans, for example, are increasingly reliant on VA. The budget provides $183 million to meet their specific healthcare needs, a $15 million, 9 percent increase from 2009. The budget includes $440 million to improve access to healthcare for Veterans in rural and highly rural areas and $5.9 billion for institutional and non-institutional long-term care services—a $663 million, 13 percent increase from the 2009 resource level.
This budget makes important commitments to newly qualified, Priority Group 8 Veterans and to the expanding numbers of combat Veterans from ongoing operations. It requests nearly $4.6 billion for expanded outreach and enhanced services for mental health care and traumatic brain injuries (TBI). It also requests $3.2 billion to help the estimated 131,000 Veterans who are homeless. We intend to take this to zero in five years and keep them off the streets. There are no absolutes in life, but if I put the target at anything more than zero, we will always be doing something less than our level best.
Finally, the 2010 budget boosts funding for the VBA by 25 percent over 2009 funding. Our primary focus is to strengthen our investments in a paperless infrastructure to leverage ways to decrease waiting times for Veterans’ claims processing.
With this growth in requested funding comes added responsibility for being transparent, accountable, and showing measurable returns on this investment. Veterans are our sole reason for existence, and I will do everything possible to ensure that the funds Congress appropriates will be used to improve the quality of life for Veterans and the efficiency of our operations. Thank you. I look forward to your questions.