Good morning, everyone—it's good to be with you again.
Commander Polzin—I appreciate that kind introduction. More importantly, Larry, thank you for your leadership of DAV and your many years of advocacy on behalf of the men and women, who have put their lives on the line for our Nation. Let me also take this opportunity to recognize:
Twenty-two million Americans, living today, have distinguished themselves by their service in uniform. Their devotion and sacrifice are the bedrock of our sovereignty as a Nation, our values as a people, and our security as a democracy. Few have given more than the men and women of DAV.
Whether you served in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, or the myriad other places where Americans have put their lives on the line recently, you could not have better advocates right now than the President and the First Lady of the United States. President Obama's leadership has been strong and unwavering—reflected in the nearly 40 percent growth in budget requests for VA between 2009 and 2014.
President Obama has said, time and again, that "Veterans who fought our wars should not have to fight for jobs." His goals are reflected in his State of the Union addresses, in the tax incentives he has made available to businesses that hire unemployed Veterans, and in his remarks before Veterans service organizations' annual conventions.
In 2011, the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden launched their "Joining Forces" initiative—a tremendously successful nationwide campaign to mobilize all sectors of our communities to address the unique needs of military families and Veterans in terms of employment, education, and wellness.
When I was appointed in 2009, the President endorsed these priorities: (1) Increase access to VA's benefits and services, (2) Eliminate the backlog in disability claims, and (3) Mobilize a national initiative to end Veterans' homelessness in this country. I asked for DAV's assistance in taking on these tough issues. You gave it to me, and you continue to do so today. I am extremely grateful for that support. The President's steady focus on Veterans' issues, the advice and assistance of Veteran service organizations like DAV, and my close personal working relationships with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and now Chuck Hagel, have enabled:
The challenges of the past 4½ years have been daunting, but with your support, we have kept our sights on what was best for Veterans. Today, I'd like to address three issues that have been much in the news lately—the claims backlog, mental health, and the healthcare law.
First, the backlog. Let me be clear—no Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. The claims backlog is a decades-old problem, and we committed to eliminating it—not reducing, not better managing—but eliminating it. We've said all along it would take time to solve this correctly. We are not going to leave this for another Secretary and President to wrestle. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
Four years ago, we built a plan, and, with minor adjustments, we've stayed with it. First, we committed to taking care of some "unfinished business"—three new diseases attributed to Agent Orange exposure, primarily for Vietnam Veterans; nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness; and service-connected PTSD for combat Veterans from all our wars. Taking care of "unfinished business" for Veterans of previous wars was bound to increase the total number of disability claims in our system—logical. At the same time, we predicted that the number of backlogged claims—those older than 125 days—would also increase. Again, logical. We testified to these projections three years ago in announcing our decisions to grant service connection.
It was the right thing to do then and the right thing to do now. But, at the same time, we also promised that we would develop an automation system to attack the entire idea of backlogged claims. And we have done so. As mentioned earlier, VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—is now fielded to all 56 of our Regional Offices—six months ahead of schedule. We projected, three years ago, that the backlog would increase because of those decisions, but then it would begin to recede during 2013.
And that has, in fact, begun—the backlog is now declining. In March of this year, the backlog reached an all-time high of over 611,000 claims. Two days ago, it fell below 500,000, a drop of over 114,000 claims in roughly 145 days. By the end of 2013, we expect to have eliminated most claims over a year old. Today, VA has the lowest number of total claims since March 2011—under 780,000. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in 2015.
Mental health: More troops are surviving combat today, and their injuries are more serious and complex—requiring prolonged hospitalizations—months and years of surgery, pain, recovery, uncertainty. As they depart military service, warm handoffs from DoD to VA assure these Veterans the continuity of care they must have.
Many combat Veterans also carry with them the baggage of war—PTS—which can include anxiety, increased irritability, a sense of numbness, flashbacks, and feeling depressed. Most of us are able to work through PTS on our own, with the help of strong families and other support mechanisms. Some, not all, but some of these Veterans incur the "D"—disorder. PTSD requires professional care, and people generally get better with treatment.
During tough economic times, like the past few years, increased unemployment exacerbates stress, prolonging the transition home for returning combatants with PTS, or the treatments for those with PTSD. We want to address these issues directly—and early, before complications begin a downward spiral towards job loss, depression, substance abuse, anger management, failures in relationships, homelessness, and for some, suicide.
The longest war in our history and these higher survival rates have raised concerns about the mental well-being of Servicemembers and Veterans, including the need for more sophisticated methods for identifying and treating their issues.
In the past, we often thought in terms of the "normal and healthy," on one hand, and the "mentally ill and unreliable," on the other—creating an obvious stigma against seeking help. If you were among the "normal and healthy," you didn't dare seek professional help for mental or emotional issues, because just seeking help moved you over into the "mentally ill and unreliable" category. And once there, you had trouble going back.
Today, we know much better than to sort people into two mutually exclusive categories based on mental health. Mental wellness is an issue for many people, and we all, at times, could use some professional counseling in dealing with life's difficulties. That's why, at VA and DoD, we make it easier for Veterans and Servicemembers to get treatment without being ostracized.
Bottom line: PTS, PTSD, TBI, and even depression—any of our Veterans dealing with these issues are not damaged goods. What they do need are jobs, education, and quality healthcare—things that give them a shot at joining the middle class so they can help rebuild our economy.
With the strong support of the President, we have increased access to mental health services. The President's budget requests, between 2009 and 2014, raised VA mental health funding by nearly 57 percent. For FY 2014, alone, the VA budget seeks nearly $7 billion for mental health programs.
Mental health staffing has also increased to address Veterans' requirements. Last August, the President directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. We have already exceeded that goal, and are also hiring some 800 peer support specialists to augment our clinical capabilities before the end of this year. We will not leave these Veterans adrift—just as we will not leave our homeless Veterans without hopeless.
Last month, the President hosted a national mental health summit at the White House to begin demystifying the issues associated with mental health, especially the stigma against seeking treatment. The White House quickly followed up with another conference several weeks ago, focusing specifically on the mental health needs of Veterans and military families.
At VA, we know that when we "identify and treat," people do get better. We have data to document this. So to maximize our opportunities for "identification and treatment," we are increasing our collaborations locally. In the next two months, VA will host local mental health summits at each of our 151 VA medical centers, to invite in community partners and broaden the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first summit was held last week in San Francisco. In Florida, summits were held this week in West Palm Beach and St. Petersburg. Others will follow in Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Lake City, Tallahassee, and Pensacola. All 151 summits will be completed by October of this year.
Our most successful initiative for caring for Veterans in distress is our Veterans Crisis Line. DoD calls it the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, 24/7—an example of our partnering to deliver optimal care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over 890,000 calls from distressed Veterans. Most importantly, 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
In 2009 we added an on-line chat service, and in 2011, a texting service to serve Veterans who operate in those media. Since then, we've engaged almost 118,000 people in on-line chats and by texting. Our crisis line webpage is averaging about 37,000 hits per month. If Veterans who need help, engage us, we stand a great chance of helping them before the onset of crisis.
Now, let me touch on the healthcare law that's about to go into effect. Veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and they deserve the best healthcare available and to know what this law means to them and what choices they have. Six key points:
In closing, as I mentioned earlier, last month was the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice in Korea. A short story from the Korean War: "Jerry" Murphy grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. He graduated from college in 1951. Then, as now, the Nation was at war. Jerry Murphy joined the Marine Corps, and in a few short months, he was commanding a platoon in combat in Korea.
In February 1953, Murphy's was the reserve platoon while the company attacked a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most company officers and NCO's were killed or wounded. The leaderless company was stranded on the hilltop and being battered.
Murphy seized the initiative and went to the aid of fellow marines. On the objective, the numbers of dead, dying, and wounded were significant. Murphy rallied the survivors in the midst of a raging battle and began evacuating the wounded while organizing a withdrawal under fire. He carried many of the casualties out of danger himself and manned a machinegun to cover the withdrawal. Murphy led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to look for and recover more dead marines. Wounded twice, he refused medical attention until he had accounted for every marine and led his rescue party to safety.
Murphy was the last man to leave that bloody hilltop. For voluntarily risking his life to serve his fellow Marines, 2Lt Jerry Murphy was awarded the Nation's highest award for valor—the Medal of Honor.
Jerry Murphy came home and served with VA for 23 years—as a counselor and director of Veteran services in New Mexico. And when he retired from VA, he volunteered for another eight years at the Albuquerque VA medical center—it is now named after him.
When he died in 2007, Jerry Murphy was buried, not in his dress blue uniform, but in his VA volunteer's jacket—as he had stipulated. First and last a selfless servant, Jerry Murphy was dedicated to the well-being of others. Devotion to fellow marines led him to that hilltop in Korea, and he lived the rest of his life that way.
VA's accomplishments are a tribute to President Obama's unwavering commitment to our Nation's Veterans and their families, and to the support of the Congress. As a lifetime member of DAV, I know you will give our Commander in Chief and First Lady a rousing "DAV" welcome when he comes to speak to you later today! They earned your respect the hard way—through deeds, not words.
God bless you. God bless all who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.