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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

Marine Corps League (MCL) Mid-Winter Conference
Fairfax, Virginia
February 14, 2014

Good morning, everyone.

Paul Hastings, many thanks for that kind introduction. Let me acknowledge:

  • Your National Commandant, Jim Tuohy: It’s good to see you again. Thanks for visiting our Polytrauma and SCI Units in San Antonio. It meant a lot to our patients and staff.
  • Marine Corps League Auxiliary National President Jackie Hunter;
  • Foundation President Laurel Hull;
  • “Chief Devil Dog” Ken and “Big Flea” Glenda Travis;
  • General Steve Olmstead: Thank you for so many years of distinguished service to the Nation;
  • Fellow Veterans, other distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored to be here. The character and values of the Marine Corps are reflected here in the League as well—Marines take care of one another. Over the past three years, your membership has donated more than a half-million hours at VA facilities across the country and contributed over $762,000 to directly benefit Veterans. Thank you for your generosity and for helping us best serve Veterans.

In January 2009, I said that we would move quickly to get as much done as possible. We have achieved some significant results together:

  • VA’s budget has grown by $50 billion, thanks to the President’s leadership and unwavering commitment to Veterans;
  • More than two million additional Veterans have enrolled in VA healthcare;
  • We have opened over 60 new community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs)—an average of at least one new clinic every month for the past five years. Our total today stands at 825 CBOCs nationwide. We have also opened our first hospital in 17 years—a new, state-of-the-art facility in Las Vegas;
  • More than 16,800 caregivers have been trained to care for our most seriously-injured post-9/11 Veterans;
  • More than a million Veteran and family member students have received educational assistance and vocational training through VA;
  • Nearly 90 percent of all Veterans now have a burial option within 75 miles of home. And an average of 115,000 Veterans a year have been laid to rest in our national cemeteries—124,000 last fiscal year;
  • Veterans' homelessness fell by 24 percent between 2010 and 2013, and we expect another reduction when this year’s point-in-time count—the PIT count—is tallied up;
  • VA helped over 630,000 Veterans and their families afford a home last year. Since 2009, we have kept more than 335,000 Veteran borrowers out of foreclosure.
  • Finally, we fielded a new, automated claims system at all 56 VA regional offices—VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System. We are now transitioning out of paper and into digital processing. Today, 80 percent of our inventory is already electronic, and over 214,000 claims have been completed through VBMS.

So, those are some of our accomplishments. Momentum is up. Your support has allowed us to focus on what is best for Veterans.

In his recent State of the Union address, the President laid out a set of proposals “to speed up [economic] growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” so that everyone who works hard can own a home, educate their children, and enjoy the fruits of their labors.

No one deserves that opportunity more than our Nation’s Veterans. The accomplishments I just highlighted are what VA has been working on for the past five years—helping Veterans secure their place in the middle class. In healthcare, education and training, and employment opportunities in both the public and private sectors, including small business set asides for Veteran small business owners. With the President’s leadership and strong support, we have made outstanding progress.

First, the backlog. 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 it, not better managing it, but eliminating it in 2015. No claim over 125 days, and our work done at 98 percent accuracy. 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. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.

We developed a plan and, over the past three years, resourced it. We are executing that plan today. First, it’s important to remember that we decided to take care of some “unfinished business” from previous wars: three new diseases attributed to Agent Orange exposure, primarily for Vietnam Veterans; for the first time, nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness; and service-connected PTSD for combat Veterans from all our wars. Taking care of this “unfinished business” for Veterans of previous wars drove up the 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 go up. Again, logical. And, we testified to this three years ago before the Congress, in order to justify our increased budget requests. Those decisions were the right things to do. Over a million Veterans enjoy access to benefits and services, today, that they were not eligible for five years ago.

 

In the same testimonies, we promised to develop an automation system that would help eliminate the backlog in disability claims that these decisions created—and we’ve done that, as well. VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—was fielded to all 56 of our regional offices six months ahead of schedule.

We projected, three years ago, that because of those three major decisions, the backlog would grow, peaking sometime in 2013, and then begin to recede. As predicted, the backlog peaked on 25 March 2013, at a little over 611,000 claims, and has since dropped over 200,000 claims, 34 percent, in ten months. The trend line is strongly in the right direction, and we have roughly two years to finish the job in 2015. And there’s nothing magical about 125/98 in 2015. When we achieve that, we’ll reassess and set new goals to better serve Veterans.

Next, homelessness. President Obama said in 2009, “we will provide new help for homeless Veterans because those heroes have a home—it’s the country they served." Since then, we have made significant investments, built infrastructure, established a National dialogue on Veterans’ homelessness, and implemented programs that help Veterans battle the factors that contribute to homelessness.

These efforts have paid off for homeless Veterans. As mentioned earlier, a 24 percent decline since 2010. Historically, homelessness increases during periods of economic downturn. We’ve had five years of slowed economic growth, and remarkably, we have broken that historical curve for homeless Veterans—instead of growth, we’ve produced a 24 percent decline since 2010.

Over the next two years, we must find, engage, and rescue every one of the 57,895 estimated homeless Veterans living on the streets and prevent those at-risk Veterans from falling into homelessness. Together, we can do this, and those Veterans are counting on us.

Mental health. At VA, we know that when we identify and treat, people get better. PTS, PTSD, TBI, depression—all are treatable if we are able to connect with those Veterans in need of help.

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 request is nearly $7 billion for VA mental health.

Mental health staff levels have also increased to keep pace with Veterans’ needs. In 2012, the President directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. VA has exceeded that goal and also hired 800 additional peer support specialists to augment the work of those clinicians. Staffing is under constant review, and we will adjust as needed.

 

One of our most successful efforts is our Veterans Crisis Line. Since start-up, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over one million calls from those needing assistance—Veterans, families, and friends. Thirty-five thousand of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.

Three years ago, we asked ourselves whether we were courageous enough to ask whether we over-medicated our mental health patients. I have asked the same question at DoD conferences on mental health. We have since developed and implemented joint DoD-VA pain management guidelines which encourage the use of other medications and therapies in lieu of opiates. One of our 21 healthcare networks, based in Minneapolis, has cut its use of high-dose opiates by more than 50 percent, and all but eliminated OxyContin prescriptions, decreasing its use by 99 percent. As a result, we are reviewing opiates, systemwide, and seeking to reduce their distribution significantly throughout all 21 healthcare networks.

With strong leadership from the President, we continue to improve access to mental health services. We remember Vietnam, and we are not going to allow that to happen to another generation of Veterans.

Justice-involved Veterans. In recent years, the number of courts dedicated to handling Veterans involved with the justice system has increased dramatically. There were perhaps four or five Veterans courts in January 2009 when I arrived at VA. Today, there are over 260 in operation throughout the country. Assisting them are 172 full-time VA Veterans justice outreach specialists, VJOs, working directly with justice officials to see that Veterans get the care they need, and that courts consider treatment in lieu of incarceration.

Last year, VJO specialists helped nearly 36,000 justice-involved Veterans, and we plan to hire another 75 specialists this year. They are making a difference. Two thirds, 68 percent, of Veterans before the treatment courts successfully complete their treatment regimens. When they receive VA services, they experience an 88 percent reduction in arrests from the year prior, to the year after entering treatment court. They also benefit from a 30 percent increase in stable housing in the year after.

Some Veterans still end up in jail or prison, so we have increased our presence there as well. Our Healthcare for Reentry Veterans program has 44 full-time specialists working in a thousand prisons—about 80 percent of all prisons in the United States. Their mission is to connect soon-to-be-released Veterans with VA healthcare, housing assistance, educational assistance, vocational counseling and training to help reentry Veterans become productive citizens. We can use your help in this area. Help me thank those judges who have been proactive in establishing Veterans courts, and help us lead justice-involved Veterans to them whenever you can.

 

I am told that incarceration is the number one predictor of homelessness. And I am also told that there is a nexus among factors that describe both Veterans’ homelessness and Veterans’ suicides—depression, insomnia, substance use disorder, pain, failed relationships. If we are going to break the cycle between incarceration and homelessness, we will have to raise our level of collaboration and leverage all our assets to address these factors. Veterans are counting on us to solve this.

Last year, we welcomed about 270,000 new Veterans to our ranks. With the conclusion of the War in Iraq, the drawdown in Afghanistan, and reductions across the Force, we expect to see 300,000 or more new Veterans in each of the next five years. They all deserve the opportunity to get an education, find employment, access high-quality, safe, and affordable healthcare, and take their place in the middle class of this country. So, let me close with a comment on the Affordable Care Act. I know it gets a lot of play in political dialogue, but here’s what I see. Veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and they deserve to know how this law applies to them and what healthcare choices they have. So, six quick points:

  • The law is designed to provide healthcare for as many Americans as possible.
  • VA wants all Veterans to receive quality care that improves their health and well-being.
  • All Veterans currently enrolled in VA healthcare do not have to take any additional steps. VA care meets the new law's standard.
  • Veterans not enrolled in VA healthcare can apply for enrollment at any time. Give us a good look—you won't be disappointed.
  • Veterans and family members who are not eligible for VA healthcare, and who do not have employer-provided health insurance, should use the new marketplace to get coverage under the law.
  • Ensuring Veterans receive quality healthcare is a fundamental obligation for VA, and we intend to help Veterans understand their options. We’ve come a long way in five years, and we could not have done it without your staunch support. We know that our work is far from done, so we are looking beyond 2015, and envisioning our future requirements out to 2020. And we will need your continued support to get there.

God bless our men and women in uniform, wherever they serve. God bless our Veterans, and God bless our wonderful country.