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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki

91st Annual National Convention of the American Legion
Louisville, KY
August 25, 2009

Good morning. I’m most honored to be joining you at this 91st National Convention.  Two hundred years ago this past February the 12th, Abraham Lincoln was born here in Kentucky. In his second inaugural address, delivered as the Civil War was drawing to a close, President Lincoln called on our nation to care for him, who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” That charge is as compelling today as it was in 1865. It underscores the uniqueness and vitality of our advocacy on behalf of veterans. 

Neither memories nor words can ever repay the debt our nation owes our Veterans.  Standing at Gettysburg, President Lincoln bore added testimony: “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

In your day, you earned similar accolades and testimony in Europe and Japan, Korea and Vietnam—in Kuwait and Somalia. On these bloody battlefields, the seeds of American heroism were planted.  They are being sown again, today, in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is not just what you did in uniform that is remarkable—it is what you did when you came home that lifted the U.S. from emergent upstart to global superpower. And it was about leadership—your leadership.

Earlier this month, we celebrated implementation of the post-9/11 GI Bill. Just as you were responsible for passage of the original GI Bill of 1944, your commitment was, once again, instrumental in getting this new 9/11 GI Bill passed.  

Returning World War II Veterans leveraged the educational opportunity provided by the original GI bill into sustained economic growth for the nation, catapulting the U.S. to the world’s largest economy and, in time, to leadership of the free world. This post-9/11 new GI bill has the potential to impact the country in the same way.

Additionally, you have strengthened our communities through such benchmark initiatives as Boys Nation and Boys State, Boy Scouts and American Legion Baseball, the National High School Oratorical Contest, and the Heroes to Hometowns program. 

Your Operation Comfort Warrior program has raised over $200,000 to buy comfort items and other goods for our wounded service members recovering in VA and military facilities worldwide.

You have been our eyes and ears in identifying the needs of our service members and Veterans, and our conscience for doing what’s right. Your Military Family Forum Initiative gives the families of service members a chance to voice their concerns, enabling us all to help solve their problems.

Thank you for your continuing service to America. For over 90 years, we have been side by side, and we look forward to continuing this important partnership.

Over the past seven months, I have visited VA facilities—large and small, urban and rural, complex and simple—all across the country. I’ve spoken with leaders, staffs, and Veterans. I also invited each of our 21 VISN directors to share with me their requirements; their priorities; their measurements for performance, quality, and safety; and their need for resources—people, money, and time. I took the final, 4-hour VISN presentation two weeks ago.  This was time well-invested—an invaluable learning experience.     

Every day, 288,000 people come to work at VA to serve Veterans. We have only one mission—to care for our nation’s veterans, wherever they live, by providing them the highest-quality benefits and services possible. We must do this faster, better, and more equitably. 

The Veterans I’ve met in my travels have been uplifting. Many struggle with conditions inevitable with old age; others live with uncertain consequences from exposures to environmental threats and chemicals; still others have recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq bearing the fresh wounds of war—visible and invisible.             

Out of my encounters with Veterans, three concerns kept coming through—access, the backlog, and homeless Veterans. 

Access: Of the 23.4 million Veterans in this country, roughly eight million are enrolled in VA. Five and a half million have used our medical services at least once; three and a half million visit our medical facilities regularly. Why have over 15 million Veterans never enrolled with us?  Whatever the reason, VA will continue reaching out to them to explain our benefits, services, and the quality of our healthcare system.

A major initiative which will expand access is the President’s decision to welcome back some 500,000 Priority Group 8 Veterans, who lost their entitlements in 2003. We began registering them in July, and we expect 266,000 enrollments this first year, through 2010. 

Another initiative to expand and improve access is the evolution of our healthcare delivery system. VA’s 153 medical centers are the flagships of our nationwide integrated healthcare enterprise. About a decade ago, VA brilliantly decided to move away from the concept of “here are our flagships; come visit us” to one that endeavors to deliver healthcare to wherever Veterans live.  

To do that, we have created a system of 768 community-based outpatient clinics, 232 Vet Centers, outreach and mobile clinics, and when necessary, contracted specialized healthcare locally.  

Our next major leap in healthcare delivery will be to routinely connect flagship medical centers to distant community-based outpatient clinics and their even more distant mobile counterparts via an IT backbone that places specialized healthcare professionals in direct contact with patients via telehealth and telemedicine hook-ups.  

Today, we are even piloting connectivity from medical centers to the homes of the chronically ill to provide better monitoring and the prevention of avoidable acute episodes.  This means that Veterans will drive less to receive routine healthcare, but they will have better access day to day. It will be higher quality and more convenient, especially for Veterans challenged by long distances—and prevention will mean healthier lives.     

The backlog: Even though less than 50 percent of the Veteran population receives care or benefits from VA, we have a backlog in disability claims. The total number of claims in our inventory today is around 400,000, and backlogged claims that have been in the system for longer than 125 days total roughly 145,000 cases. In July, we closed out 85,000 claims and received another 89,000 new ones. Regardless of how we parse the numbers, there is a backlog, it is too big, and Veterans are waiting too long for their checks. 

In April, President Obama charged Defense Secretary Gates and me to build a fully interoperable electronic records system that will provide each member of our armed forces a Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record that will track them from the day they put on the uniform, through their time as Veterans, until the day they are laid to rest.  

VA is already a leader in the development and use of electronic health records. So is the Department of Defense. Between us, DoD and VA have an opportunity to drive the improvement of healthcare through a fully interoperable electronic health record. Our achievements here may go beyond Veterans and service members and could help the nation, as a whole. We are working with the President’s chief performance, chief technology, and chief information officers to harness the powers of innovation and technology. For VA, it will revolutionize our claims process—faster processing, higher quality decisions, no lost records, fewer errors. I am personally committed to reducing the processing times of disability claims.  We have work to do here, and we have moved out.

Homelessness: Veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and they rank up there in joblessness, as well. Here again, this is an accumulation of neglect. We estimate that 131,000 Veterans live on the streets of this wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world—men and women, young and old, fully functioning and disabled, from every war generation, even the current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them will sleep on the streets here in Louisville tonight. 

Six years ago, that number was 195,000, so we think we have the right partners, the right plans, and the right programs in place. We are moving in the right direction to remove this blot on all our consciences. 

President Obama and I are committed to ending homelessness among Veterans. We are going to take those 131,000 homeless Veterans off the streets over the next five years. No one, who has served this nation, as we have, should ever find themselves living without care—and without hope. I know that there are never any absolutes in life, but unless we set an ambitious target, we would not be giving this our very best efforts. To do this well, we will have to attack the entire downward spiral that ends in homelessness—we must offer education, jobs, treat depression, fight substance abuse, and offer safe housing. We have to do it all—no missed opportunities in going from 131,000 to zero and keeping it there—education, jobs, mental health, substance abuse, housing.

Education: the President and Senators Jim Webb and John Warner just kicked off our post-9/11 new GI bill program on 3 August. We expect roughly 150,000 Veterans to take part in this fully-funded, degree producing program at a state college or university of their choice this year. An additional 1,100 private institutions have elected to participate in a special arrangement called the Yellow Ribbon Program. This investment in America’s future will go on for decades to come.

The first time we did this in 1944, after World War II, our country ended up being richer by 450,000 trained engineers, 240,000 accountants, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and a million other college-educated Veterans. They went on to provide the leadership that catapulted our economy to world’s largest and our nation to leader of the free world and victor in the Cold War. Lightning is about to strike twice for those, who have answered our nation’s call.

Jobs: I recently addressed over 1,700 Veteran small business owners at the fifth annual small business symposium on 21 July. I reminded them that Veterans hire Veterans because they know what they’re getting. Customers and partners value their skills, knowledge, and attributes and are eager to work with them.

Just last fall, in a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, over 90 percent of employers said they valued Veterans’ skills—in particular, their strong sense of responsibility and teamwork.

VA puts Veterans first in our contracting awards because we recognize the on-time, on-budget, quality solutions they bring to our contracting needs. In fiscal year 2008, our unique “Veterans First” buying program resulted in VA’s spending more than $2 billion on Veteran-owned small businesses. That represented 15 percent of our procurement dollars—up five percent from the previous year.  

During that time, we also doubled our support to service-disabled Veteran-owned businesses. That means 12 percent of our procurement dollars—$1.6 billion of $2 billion expended—was invested here.

At VA, our experience is that Veteran-owned small businesses have high likelihood for creating new jobs, developing new products and services, and building prosperity. As I said earlier, Veterans hire Veterans. So increasing opportunities for Veteran-owned small businesses is an effective way to help address many needs during this economic downturn.   

Homeless healthcare: We will spend $3.2 billion next year to prevent and reduce homelessness among Veterans—$2.7 billion on medical services and $500 million on specific homeless programs. With 85 percent of homelessness funding going to healthcare, it means that homelessness is primarily a healthcare issue—heavily burdened with depression and substance abuse. The psychological consequences of combat affect every generation of Veterans. VA now employs 18,000 mental health professionals to address our mental health needs. We know if we diagnose and treat, people usually get better. If we don’t, they won’t, and sometimes their problems become debilitating. We understand the stigma issue, but we are not going to be dissuaded. We are not giving up on any of our veterans with mental health challenges, and definitely, not the homeless.

Homeless housing: We have approximately 500 partners in nearly every major town and city across the country helping us get homeless Veterans off the streets. With 20,000 HUD-VASH vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and our $500 million to invest in 2010, to cover safe housing and rehabilitation for Veterans we have been able to coax off the streets, we are going to reduce the number of homeless Veterans next year, and each year thereafter, for the next five.

So, education, jobs, healthcare, and housing: we have work to do here; but we have momentum, and we know where we are headed.

President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a high-performing 21st century organization. It will be a different organization from the one that exists today.

Five years from now, we intend to be the provider of choice for more of that larger population of 23.4 million Veterans—in insurance, in healthcare, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.

To achieve this kind of status with Veterans, we must make it easier for them to understand their entitlements and then make it much simpler for them to access their benefits and health care services.

Beyond the five years, we’re looking for new ways of thinking and acting. We are asking why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this Secretary is still adjudicating claims for service-connected disabilities related to it. And why 20 years after Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of whatever causes Gulf War illness. Left to our present processes, 20 or 40 years from now, some future secretary could be adjudicating service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts. We must do better, and we will. 

If you haven’t already heard, the Institute of Medicine recently released a new study on a possible link between Agent Orange and heart disease and Parkinson’s. We have this study under review now, and I assure you—we will get this right. 

Any organization our size is bound to have occasional disappointments, and we have not been spared them in recent months. Many of these issues occurred in the past, but I take full responsibility for fixing them. Some of these disappointments resulted from someone cutting corners, while others were failures in leadership, behavior and professional ethics. And still others were systemic.

These issues will only be resolved when a sense of responsibility, accountability, and discipline is established throughout VA—from my office to the farthest reaches of our footprint.  We are your advocates, and we have begun to retrain the workforce.    

My remarks this morning comprise a seven-month progress report on the state of your Department of Veterans Affairs. I intend to do this again next year. Much more remains to be done. We need your continued support and assistance if we are to become the provider of choice. My mission is to serve Veterans by increasing their access to our benefits and services, to provide them the highest quality of health care available, and to control costs to the best of my abilities. Doing so will make VA a model of good governance. Doing so will also keep faith with President Lincoln’s charge to care for those who have borne the battle and grant them the dignity and respect they deserve until they are laid to rest. That is my mission.

We look for your advice and support in all of these endeavors. Thanks to you, we now have the new post-9/11 GI Bill. Thanks to you, we also have an agreement with Congress on advance appropriations for VAs three medical accounts. Both the House and the Senate Appropriations Committees have recommended advance appropriations for VA medical care for 2011. I know this has been a priority at American Legion for some time, and Id like to thank you and the Partnership for Veterans Healthcare Budget Reform for your leadership in getting us this far.  

Much more remains to be done, and your advice and support continue to be important.  For all that you do, you have our deepest respect and thanks.  

God bless the men and women who tonight and every other night of the year perform their lonely and demanding missions in the faraway corners of Iraq and Afghanistan. God bless all of you, and God bless our great country.

Thank you.