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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

American Legion Mid-Winter Conference
Washington, DC
March 2, 2010

Clarence many thanks for that kind introduction, and congratulations on your leadership of the American Legion.

We have 15 minutes, so let me address our priorities. A lot has happened since I first addressed this mid-winter conference a year ago.

I mentioned then that we were crafting a first-ever 2010 budget and a 2011 advance appropriations request. Thanks to your legislative initiatives, we had the opportunity to build an important two-year budget.

Resources: We worked the budget hard, and as you now know, that work paid off. The President fully supported our budget request in 2010, by providing us with a 16.7% budget increase above the 2009 congressionally-enhanced budget. This year, VA is executing a budget of $114 billion, the largest budget increase in 30 years.

Our 2011 budget request is $125 billion—$60.3 billion in discretionary resources and $64.7 billion in mandatory funding. Our discretionary budget request for 2011 is an increase of 7.6%. These increases provide VA two-year, discretionary funding of almost 20% above the 2009 congressionally-enhanced budget.

Thanks to the President, 2010 and 2011 are strong budgets that provide us the resources required to increase Veteran access to our benefits and services, reduce the backlog, and end Veteran homelessness within five years.

Before addressing each of these priorities, let me touch on the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill—an important, no-fail priority. From a standing start last August, we finished the fall semester with 173,000 Veterans in school at 6,500 colleges and universities, being paid for by VA.

You know that, without any automated tools, we got off to a rocky start. We learned as we went and put in place the necessary fixes for this spring semester. As a result, checks began flowing on 1 February, 2010, to 131,000 Veterans. Today, 170,000 Veterans are receiving checks of 180,000 enrolled. We are processing roughly 7,000 enrollment certificates a day, so the delta of 10,000 between enrolled and those receiving checks is manageable. We are on a good glide path here and will be fully automated by the end of this year. Post-9/11 G.I. Bill recipients are the newest additions to the 565,000 Veterans being educated through VA’s several education programs.

Access: We are expanding access to our care and services through the activations of new or improved facilities, by expanding eligibility to more Priority Group 8 Veterans, by making greater investments in telehealth, and by opening new cemeteries.

This time last year, we had 768 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs); 232 Vet Centers; 50 mobile Vet Centers and seven mobile outpatient clinics; and 128 National Cemeteries. In the past 12 months, we have opened 20 new CBOCs, 36 Vet Centers, purchased two additional mobile outpatient clinics, and opened three new cemeteries.

And we’re not done yet, by 2011, we are projected to have over 70 more CBOCs and 31 more Vet Centers. Additionally, over the past year, 40,000 chronically ill Veterans, who qualify for remote monitoring, have been provided telehealth connectivity so that they don’t have to travel to our hospitals or clinics to have their conditions checked. With the power of the microprocessor, they can be monitored from their own homes—this is also what we mean by increasing access to VA care and services. We are investing $121 million in telehealth this year to move VA to the head of the line in 21st century health care delivery.

Homelessness: In January 2009, we estimated that 131,000 Veterans slept on the streets of this powerful and wealthy country. I have pledged that we are going to end Veteran homelessness over the next five years.

Our current estimate for 2010 is that 107,000 Veterans remain homeless—a decrease of 18%. While that is a good start, we need a full court press to keep driving those numbers down. It’s not about just providing beds and shelter to 131,000 homeless Veterans. It’s also about treating for depression, substance abuse, suicide prevention, and about education and jobs, and the dignity of being thought capable of caring for one self. So, that’s where we’re headed in ending Veteran homelessness, and we welcome your collaboration and support in eliminating it.

The backlog: This is one area in which we did not progress as I would have wanted. Getting the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill program up and functioning, while not a major distraction, did pull me away from working the backlog. That’s not to say that we did not work this hard; last year we completed 974,000 claims, and then received another 1 million new claims to take their place. Some see that as terrible. I don’t. I see our outreach to and education of Veterans, who have never submitted claims before, as succeeding.

2010 is my year to focus on the backlog to find and break longstanding obstacles to faster and better processing, and higher quality outcomes. As a first step, over the past year, we put four pilots into motion:

Pittsburgh, where we are designing how to build the best claim possible for each Veteran. In this pilot, VA will partner with Veterans and the VSOs. This is about Veterans being treated as our clients and our intent to change the culture inside VA over time to one of advocacy for Veterans. Like building a legal brief, how do we make each claim the best and strongest argument to win the case for the Veteran?

Pilot #2 is in Little Rock, Arkansas. Business process re-engineering—when that “best possible claim” arrives for adjudication, who touches it first, how many others have to touch it, and what are the structural relationships that make this the most efficient process?

Pilot #3, Providence, Rhode Island. What automated tools are needed to increase speed, accuracy, efficiency, and security? The goals are no lost claims, and highest accuracy in claims processing. We didn’t want to automate bad processes and just get lousy decisions faster, so we broke the complex process down into its component pieces to improve each part before putting them back together again.

And finally, Pilot #4 pulls together all these efforts to create the virtual regional office of the future. This will replace the 57 ROs we have out there now with a target to eliminate the claims backlog by 2015.

Well, why 2015? Why so long, if I’m working this as a priority? Because in October 2009, we made an Agent Orange decision that added three new diseases to the presumptive list for service connection. It was the right decision for our Vietnam Veterans, who have been dealing with the toxic effects of Agent Orange for the past 40 years.

Logically, the overall number of claims can be expected to grow, as will the backlog and processing times due to these new Agent Orange claims. But with these four pilots and the 27 percent increase we have provided to VBA’s budget in 2011, I expect that we will shape and control the growth in claims, so that by 2015, we will be well on our way to eliminating the backlog.

Our long term solution to claims processing is to operationalize the concept of “seamless transition” between DoD and VA as military service members shed their uniforms and enroll. Seamless transition is our joint DoD-VA concept of universal registration, where service members’ personnel and medical records are duplicated in VA, even as those service records are being populated, while they still serve in uniform. That way, there is no air gap in the transfer of those records when the uniforms come off at the end of their military service.

To enable this kind of seamlessness, a new information system called V-LER, the virtual lifetime electronic record, is being developed by both VA and DoD. The President mandated V-LER last April 2009, as the future transformational record for all service members and Veterans. When fielded, V-LER will track each member of our military forces—active and reserve component—from the day they first put on the uniform until the day they are laid to rest. This will transform our Benefits Administration—faster processing, better decisions, fewer errors, no lost records.

We must and will transform VA into the high performing, well-disciplined, transparent, and accountable organization, we know it’s capable of being. 300,000 good people come to work everyday to serve Veterans. We must focus all of their efforts on providing Veterans the highest quality and safety in benefits and services. The need to transform VA is, in part, to harmonize two very distinct images of men and women who have worn our nation’s military uniforms, two incongruent images that are troubling.

The first image is this—and it is one most familiar to everyone in this audience: Each year, something around 60 percent of high school graduates go on to colleges, universities, community colleges—some version of higher education. Of the remaining 40 percent or so, some undergo vocational training, and some immediately enter the workforce. Fewer others join the less than one percent of Americans who volunteer to serve in our nation’s armed forces. Most young people today have no memory of a draft army.

After enlisting, they undergo weeks of rigorous physical training and mental preparation for a disciplined life of values, standards, and accountability. Following graduation from basic training, they join a wide variety of units—platoons, ships, squadrons, and detachments.

When they reach those first units, they quickly become valued and trusted members of high-performing teams—tough, motivated, and extremely dedicated. With excellent leadership, they go forward, each and every day, to perform the complex, the difficult, and the dangerous missions. On some days, they are asked to do the impossible. think of what they’ve been asked to do, and what they’ve accomplished, with unwavering commitment and without complaint, these last eight years in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But there is a second image: Veterans suffer disproportionately from homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicides, and they are well up there in joblessness, as well. 107,000 of them sleep on the streets of our nation. Another 40,000 Veterans are released from prison each year.

What’s wrong with these disparate images? To be sure, there are fewer in the second image than the first, but they are the same youngsters. How did we fail to continue the kinds of successes they achieved while in uniform? How do we keep them from entering that downward spiral of joblessness, depression, and substance abuse that often leads to homelessness and, sometimes, to suicide? It’s not about them; it’s about us.

At VA, our goal is to never allow those in image number one to become part of image number two, and to return those in image number two to lives as productive as possible. Our five-year plan is aggressive, but achievable. Can we do it alone? No—we need your help.

You have a long history of championing the well-being of men and women, who have selflessly served our nation in uniform. The energy and commitment you applied to passing advance appropriations into law is reflected in every other initiative under the five pillars of your mission: Americanism; children and youth; national security and foreign relations; Veterans affairs and rehabilitation; and community service.

For more than 90 years, you’ve been doing the heavy lifting in legislative and community action, helping to keep care and services relevant to America’s Veterans. Thank you for the good work you do each and every day for Veterans in your communities and in your national-level initiatives.

God bless our men and women in uniform. God bless our Veterans, and may God continue to bless our great Nation. Thank you.