Good morning, BVA! It's good to be with all of you.
Sam, thanks for that kind introduction, and my thanks to you and your leadership—Mark Cornell, your National Vice President, and Al Alvina, your Executive director—for your invitation. Let me also acknowledge:
Last month marked the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean armistice. You don't have to be much of a student of history to know what our country asked—on very short notice—of the young men and women, who went to fight there, or how magnificently they performed their missions. To our Korean War Veterans, thank you for doing your duty. You saved a nation and provided us all sterling examples of service and sacrifice. Please accept our thanks, respect, and admiration. Thank you.
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. 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 pursued these priorities.
In the 4½ years since January 2009, thanks to the leadership of the president; the support of the Congress; the advice and assistance of Veteran service organizations, like BVA; and a close, personal, working relationship between the Secretaries of VA and Defense: first, Bob Gates; then, Leon Panetta; and now, Chuck Hagel—we have made significant strides in better caring for Veterans:
Generating momentum over the past 4½ years has been challenging, but with your support, we have remained fixed on doing what's best for Veterans. Today, I'd like to address four important issues: the claims backlog, mental health, the disabilities treaty, and the healthcare law, as well as quick updates on issues of particular interest to BVA.
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, but we have committed to eliminating it—not reducing, not better managing—but eliminating it. No claim over 125 days; 98% accuracy. 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 developed a plan and, over the past 4 ½ years, with the help of Congress, have resourced it. We are executing that plan today. First, we decided 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 it would be the right thing to do today. At the same time, we promised to develop an automation system that would help eliminate the entire idea of a backlog in disability claims. We have done that, as well. 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 grow, because of our decisions to expand access. But, we also predicted it would begin to recede during 2013.
Well, that is, now, underway. The backlog is in decline. In March of this year, the backlog reached an all-time high of over 611,000 claims. Today, it is below 480,000 claims, a drop of over 131,000 claims in roughly 155 days. By the end of this year, most year-old claims will be out of our system, and we will be focused on a steady take down of the backlog. Today, VA has the lowest number of claims in processing since March 1, 2011: under 767,000. 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 after 12 years of combat, their injuries are serious and their issues, more complex. Many combat Veterans 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 Veterans incur the "D"—PTS-D—disorder. Unlike PTS, which most can transition out of on their own, PTS-D requires professional help. Here, again, people get better with treatment.
During tough economic times, as we have experienced for the past five years, unemployment increases stress, prolonging both the transitions of those returning from combat with PTS, and the treatments of those dealing with PTS-D. We want to address these issues directly—and early—before complications begin a downward spiral towards depression. Substance abuse, anger management, job loss, breakdowns in relationships, homelessness, and sometimes, suicide.
The longest war in our history with 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 encourage Veterans and Servicemembers to seek treatment without being ostracized.
Bottom line: PTS, PTS-D, TBI, and even depression—all are treatable, and we are heavily committed to helping Veterans receive treatment. 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%. 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 directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. VA has exceeded that goal and is now hiring 800 peer support specialists to augment those clinicians, before the end of this year.
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 our opportunities to "identify and treat," we are hosting 151 local mental health summits at each of our medical centers, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first was held last month in San Francisco, and all 151 will be completed by October.
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. If we are engaging Veterans, who need help, we stand a good chance of taking care of needs before the onset of crisis—a better way to go. So, we will outreach in every way possible to ensure we are available to Veterans in need.
Let me speak briefly about an issue that is important for our nation's five and a half million disabled Veterans—ratification of the Disabilities Treaty.
Here in the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects all those with disabilities from discrimination and helps to provide equal opportunity, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency. However, in other countries, what we have here isn't always available.
The Disabilities Treaty will help other countries reduce barriers that affect the disabled—including our newest and youngest disabled Veterans, who travel overseas for work, study, and leisure. Importantly, ratifying this treaty enables disabled Americans the same protections abroad as they have here at home.I served for roughly 10 years in Europe as a disabled Soldier following my tours in Vietnam— learning to walk and run again, convincing the Army I could continue to serve, and learning to adjust to a new reality. I recall the absence of aids for the disabled in many places where I served—ramps, lifts, automatic door openers, among other devices that are commonly available in this country.
This is not a partisan issue. Former Senator, Bob Dole, a distinguished, combat Veteran of World War II, has supported ratification of this treaty. Doing so would keep faith with generations of disabled Veterans, who have served this nation faithfully and with distinction. I ask for BVA's support in ratifying an important treaty that seeks to enable disabled Americans, including our disabled Veterans, to travel safely and with dignity, when they go abroad.
Next, 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 they have in deciding their healthcare options. Six points:
Finally, a couple of items of specific interest to BVA—pending legislation—H.R. 1284—that addresses beneficiary travel for blinded Veterans. VA supports the idea of travel benefits for a larger group of "catastrophically disabled" Veterans—blind Veterans, those who have spinal cord injuries, amputees, and those with special needs, who may not be otherwise eligible. We will work with the congress to craft appropriate language to make this happen.
Second, we are also fully committed in our support of the vision center of excellence. The VCE continues to develop important recommendations and practical approaches for DoD and VA caregivers for eye care, including:
Thanks again, for the invitation to join you today. As in the past, VA's future 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 BVA—good people serving Veterans. We have work to do together. The momentum needle is up. Let's keep it moving. My thanks, once again, to Chairman Murray for her support and her leadership.
God bless BVA. God bless those who serve and have served our nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.