Good morning, VFW! It's great to be with you, and good to be back in Louisville!
Commander-in-Chief John Hamilton, many thanks for that kind introduction. More importantly, John, thank you for devoting yourself for so many years to the service of Veterans. Your leadership of the VFW has been inspiring. I wish you Godspeed as you pass the mantle of leadership to Senior Vice Commander Bill Thien. And to Bill, many thanks for your service as well, and congratulations on your new responsibilities. I look forward to working with you.
Let me also acknowledge some of your other national leaders:
I am especially honored to be speaking with you once again. When I first spoke with you in 2009, I observed 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 we had. I needed help to take on really tough issues: (1) increasing Veterans access to VA's benefits and services, (2) eliminating—not reducing or better managing—but eliminating the backlog in disability claims, and finally (3) mobilizing a national initiative to end Veterans' homelessness in this country. I asked for your assistance, and you gave it to me—and you continue to do so today. I am grateful for that support.
I'm also grateful for the opportunity to work all these initiatives alongside my friend, Chuck Hagel, from whom you heard yesterday. Chuck's credentials as a Veterans' advocate are without peer—combat Veteran, educated on the GI Bill, former-deputy administrator of VA, former-CEO of the USO, principal co-sponsor of the new 9/11 GI Bill, and a genuine American patriot. Since he assumed office last February, he and I have met multiple times to discuss issues common to both of our departments. Secretary Hagel's partnership on behalf of those who wear and have worn the uniforms of our Nation has been uplifting. I look forward to our continued collaboration in bringing our two large departments closer than ever before.
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 Veterans Service Organizations, like VFW, and a close partnership with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and now Chuck Hagel, have enabled VA's significant achievements:
The challenges of the past four-and-a-half years have been daunting, but with your help we have stayed clearly sighted on what's best for Veterans. More remains to be done, but this will always be true if you pursue continuous improvements over time—and we do.
Today, I'd like to address two issues that have been much in the news lately—mental health and the claims backlog. Some have criticized VA as being uncaring and unhelpful on both issues. Neither is correct, so let me address them both. First, mental health.
I have witnessed monumental changes in the way we wage war—greater speed, agility, precision, and stamina in all aspects of the use of force. Perhaps less noticed, among those tremendous changes, have been the Department of Defense's amazing advances in battlefield medicine, coupled with the creation of a world-class military medical evacuation system—hours to days from the battlefield to stateside medical care, rather than the weeks and months for past generations. More troops are surviving combat today because of these advances; but for some, the injuries are much more serious and complex—requiring prolonged hospitalizations—months and years of surgery, pain, recovery, uncertainty. As these patients are released from military service, the seamlessness of 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 these issues personally for four-and-a-half years now. It is that important. If we get it right for these Veterans and families, we will be in a better position to get it right for everyone else.
Now, many combat Veterans also carry with them the baggage that comes with combat—PTS, post-traumatic stress—which can include nervous anxiety, increased irritability, feeling numb, suffering 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 structures. Some, not all, of these Veterans incur the "D"—disorder. PTSD requires professional care, and people generally get better with treatment over time.
But in tough economic times, as we have experienced for the past five years, any prolonged unemployment exacerbates stress, extending the transition home for those with PTS, or the period of 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, a breakdown in relationships, homelessness, and sometimes, suicide.The longest war in our history and higher survival rates have driven increased concern for 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 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 little chance of going back.
Today, we know much better than to sort people into two mutually exclusive categories based on mental health. We know that mental wellness is an issue for many people and that we all, at times, could use some professional counseling in dealing with life's difficulties. So at VA and DoD we make it easier for Veterans and Servicemembers to get treatment without being ostracized for seeking help. Bottom line: PTS, PTSD, TBI, and even depression, our Veterans are not damaged goods. What they need are jobs and education and quality healthcare—a shot at the middle class to help rebuild our economy.
Now, with the strong leadership of President Obama 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 2013, VA mental health funding totaled $6.5 billion.
Mental health staff levels have 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 additional clinicians. We have also hired more than 420 peer support specialists towards our year-end goal of 800.
Last month, the President hosted a national mental health summit at the White House to focus on the need to work together to demystify the issues surrounding mental health, especially overcoming the stigma associated with treatment. The White House followed up with a conference two 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. So to maximize our opportunities for identification and treatment, we are increasing our collaboration with local agencies and community partners. In the next two months, VA will host local mental health summits at each of our 152 VA medical centers, to broaden the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first will be held in San Francisco, tomorrow, with the remaining 151 summits occurring out through September. We are also partnering at the local level on 24 pilot projects with federally-qualified community health centers in nine states.
By partnering with local communities and other federal agencies, we intend to get the most out of our resources. By collaborating, we also seek to reduce the stigma against accessing needed mental health care that is available.
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, at no cost to DoD—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 800,000 calls from Veterans in need. Most importantly, 29,000 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 94,000 people in on-line chats and another 7,000 by texting. Our crisis line webpage is averaging about 37,000 visits per month. If we have Veterans who need help engaging with us, we stand a better chance of helping them before the onset of crisis.
For example, with DoD, we developed a new mobile app called the "PTSD Coach" to help Servicemembers and Veterans manage their readjustment challenges in real-time and to access to mental health assistance anonymously.
Now, the backlog. Let me be clear: No Veteran should have to wait to receive benefits that have been earned. The claims backlog is real. It is the reason I agreed to continue my service as secretary. We've said all along it would take time to solve this correctly, and we are not going to leave this for another secretary and president to wrestle with. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
We started out four years ago with a plan, and we've stayed with it. First, we were determined to take 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. Doing these "right things" for Veterans of previous wars was bound to increase the total number of disability claims in our system—that only stood to reason. At the same time, we predicted that the number of backlogged claims—claims older than 125 days, a standard we created to measure ourselves—was also going to increase. Again, logical. We testified to these projections three years ago in announcing those decisions to grant service connection.
It was the right thing to do then and the right thing to do now. But we also promised that we would develop an automation system that would enable us to eliminate the backlog. And we have done so. As mentioned earlier, VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—is now fielded to all 56 of our regional offices. We projected three years ago that the backlog would increase and then begin to recede in 2013.
And that is underway—the backlog is now declining. We are somewhat behind where we predicted we would be in backlogged claims as a percentage of the total inventory, but that percentage will shift downwards as the oldest claims leave the system. In the past 90 days alone, the backlog has dropped from roughly 600,000 to 515,000. Claims over two years old have dropped from over 42,000 to about 1,700. Claims over a year old have dropped from over 210,000 to under 175,000. By the end of this year, we expect most claims over a year old will have left our system. Today, VA has the lowest total claims inventory since August 2011. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in disability claims in 2015.
This 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. After finishing high school in 1947, he went straight to college and graduated four years later. Then, as now, the Nation was at war, and so right after graduation, Jerry Murphy joined the Marine Corps. In a few short months, he was in Korea commanding a platoon in combat.
In February 1953, Murphy's platoon was held in reserve while the rest of his company attacked a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most of the company's officers and NCOs were killed or wounded. The battered company was leaderless on the hilltop and taking more casualties.
From below, Murphy could see that something had gone wrong. He immediately seized the initiative and led his platoon up the hill. Arriving on the objective, Murphy found that the numbers of dead, dying, and wounded were significant. Rallying his fellow Marines in the midst of a raging battle, Murphy began evacuating the wounded, carrying many of them himself while organizing a withdrawal under fire. He manned a machine gun to cover the withdrawal, and then led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to 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, 2nd Lt. Jerry Murphy was awarded the Nation's highest award for valor—the Medal of Honor. But his record of service didn't end there.
Jerry Murphy went on to serve with VA for 23 years—as a counselor and director of Veteran services in New Mexico. After retiring from VA, he chose, again, to serve Veterans for another eight years as a volunteer at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center.
Upon his death in 2007, Jerry Murphy insisted on being buried, not in his dress blue uniform, but in his VA Volunteer's jacket. Jerry Murphy was first and last a selfless servant, dedicated to the well-being of others. It was his devotion to fellow Marines that led him to that hilltop in Korea. But he didn't stop serving others or being a hero when he left that hilltop—he lived the rest of his life that way. The same shared sense of humanity that drove him up that hill, time and again in search of fellow Marines, also motivated his years of service to Veterans.
VA's accomplishments will always be delivered by its good people who work hard every day to do the right things for our Nation's Veterans. We have this in common—VA and VFW—good people serving Veterans.
God bless the VFW, and all who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue this great country of ours.