Good morning, PVA! It's great to be with you here in Long Beach. Doug [Vollmer]—thank you for that kind introduction:
I am especially honored to be speaking with you, once again. When I was appointed in 2009, I noted that the average Secretary of Veterans Affairs served about 3.5 years. So, I said then that we had to move quickly to get as much done as possible in the time that we had. I needed help to take on some tough issues: (1) increasing Veterans access to VA's benefits and services, (2) eliminating the backlog in disability claims, and finally, (3) mobilizing a national initiative to end Veterans' homelessness in this country. I am grateful for the support you provided as we took these three priorities on.
In the four and a half years since January 2009, the leadership of the President, the support of the Congress, the advice and assistance of Veteran Service Organizations like PVA, and my close, personal, working relationship with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, and now Chuck Hagel, have enabled the following significant achievements:
The challenges of the past four and a half 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 benefits that have been earned. The claims backlog is a decades old problem. We committed to eliminating the claims backlog—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.
We built a plan and, over the past four and a half years, resourced it. We are executing that plan today. First, we decided it was important to take care of some "unfinished business" from previous wars—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 would be the right thing to do today. But, we also promised that we would, at the same time, develop an automation system that would help eliminate the entire idea of a backlog in disability claims. We have done that. 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 our decisions to increase access, and then it would begin to recede during 2013, this year.
And, that is underway—the backlog is declining. In March of this year, the backlog reached an all-time high of over 611,000 claims. Yesterday, it fell below 493,000, claims, a drop of over 118,000 claims in roughly 150 days. By the end of 2013, we expect to eliminate most claims over a year old. Today, VA has the lowest number of claims in processing since 1 march 2011—under 775,000. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in 2015.
Next, 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, and uncertainty.
As these patients depart military service, a warm handoff from DoD to VA assures them the continuity of care they must have. This is why the Secretary of VA and the Secretary of Defense have worked on seamlessness between our two large departments, personally, for four and a half years now. It is that important.
Now, many combat Veterans also carry with them the baggage of war—PTS, post-traumatic stress—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 do get better with treatment.
During tough economic times, as we have experienced for the past five years, any prolonged unemployment exacerbates stress, prolonging transitions for those with PTS, or treatment 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, breakdowns in relationships, homelessness, and sometimes, suicide.
The longest war in our history and these higher survival rates have sensitized us all to the mental well-being of Servicemembers and Veterans, including the need for better tools for identifying and treating their issues.
In the past, we often thought simplistically in terms of "normal and healthy," on one hand, and "mentally ill and unreliable," on the other. Such thinking created an obvious stigma against seeking help. If you were among the "normal and healthy," you didn't 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, there was the chance of not being able to get back.
Today, we know that mental wellness is an issue for many people, and that we all, at times, could use some counseling in dealing with life's difficulties. So, at VA and DoD, we make it easier for courageous Veterans and Servicemembers to get treatment without being ostracized.
Bottom line: PTS, PTSD, TBI, and even depression—any Veteran dealing with these issues is not damaged goods. What they need are jobs, education, and quality healthcare—a real shot at joining the middle class to help rebuild our economy.
Through the strong leadership of the President and the support of the Congress, we continue to improve access to mental health services. The President's budget requests between 2009 and 2014 increased VA mental health funding by nearly 57 percent. For FY 2014 alone, the President's budget requests were nearly $7 billion for VA mental health.
Mental health staff levels have also increased to keep pace with Veterans' needs. A year ago, the President issued an executive order directing the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. Since then, VA has exceeded that goal by hiring over 1,660 clinicians. We have also hired more than 490 peer support specialists towards our year-end goal of 800.
In June, the President hosted a national mental health summit at the White House to demystify the issues surrounding mental health, especially the stigma against seeking treatment. The White House followed up with a 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 get better. So, to increase "identification and treatment," we are collaborating at the local agencies and community partners. VA is hosting 151 local mental health summits at each of our medical centers, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first was held a last month in San Francisco, and all 151 will be completed by the end of this year. We are also partnering on 24 pilot projects with federally qualified community health centers in nine states to get more out of our resources.
One of our most successful efforts is our Veterans Crisis Line. DoD knows it as the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, 24 / 7, to deliver optimal care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over 890,000 calls from Veterans in need. Most importantly, 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
Chatting and texting appeal to those who are comfortable with technology. So in 2009 we added an on-line chat service, and in 2011, a texting service. Since then, we've engaged almost 118,000 people in on-line chats and texts. Our crisis line webpage is averaging about 37,000 visits per month. If we can engage Veterans who need help, we stand a good chance of averting crisis. We will outreach in any and every way to ensure we are available for Veterans in need.
Finally, 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 deserve to know and understand what this law means and what choices you have. Six key points:
In closing, as I mentioned earlier, last month is 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. And 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 will always be delivered by our good people, who work hard every day to do the right things for our Nation's Veterans. We have this in common—VA and PVA—good people serving Veterans.
God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.