I'm honored to be here and appreciate the invitation to join you. I am pressed up against another obligation, but I have a few points I want to share with you.
First, I know you have a busy week, but I'm glad that the needs and requirements of our Nation's Veterans are on your agenda; they deserve the full and unwavering support of our Nation and all our citizens.
Let me start with some brief background about VA.
This year marks the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War; an important date for VA, because we trace our legacy as a department back to that war and the solemn responsibility to care for those who fought it—as well as to care for the remains of those who gave their lives to preserve the Union.
That commitment was best expressed by President Lincoln in his Second Inaugural Address. To paraphrase, our mission at VA is to care for those "who shall have borne the battle" and their spouses and orphans.
The effects of the Civil War, and of every war, including current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, last far longer than the deployments of our Servicemembers to distant battlefields. Today, in 2011, we still have two children of Civil War Veterans on our benefits rolls.
And last week, the last known American Veteran of the First World War, Mr. Frank Buckles, was buried after passing away at age 110, 92 years after the armistice that ended the Great War.
Since the Civil War, and during all of the other wars and times of restless peace between, the mission of VA and our predecessor organizations has remained the same, but the services and benefits we provide have expanded.
Most know us as a healthcare provider, and we are. We deliver this care through the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, including 152 Medical Centers, 791 CBOCs, almost 300 Vet Centers, and mobile clinics located in the states and territories you represent.
But here is what is also true. VA runs:
VA is both large and complex. Occasionally, some people question, "Why is the federal government providing so much in benefits and services?"
I believe the answer is that, in times past, those who safeguarded our Nation could not acquire or afford these services on their own. No one provided them. So VA was given the task of delivering on the promises of presidents and meeting the obligations of the American people to our Veterans. Today we provide burn care, spinal cord injury, and TBI centers second to none.
Budget Update: 2010 was a good year for Veterans—the largest presidential budget increase in over 30 years, and the first year of something called "advanced appropriations" for medical care. This is something unique to VA—a two-year budget process for medical appropriations. Every year, we submit a two-year budget—a continuous budget process.
2011 is our second year of advanced appropriations. While our benefit and cemetery 2011 budgets are tied to continuing resolution, our healthcare is fully funded for the year. Veterans healthcare is assured. Advanced appropriations also enables us to focus on teaching key behaviors and pursuing key priorities, focusing all our energies and resources to better serve Veterans.
There are three key behaviors we are driving at VA: People-centric, Results-oriented, Forward-looking.
These three key behaviors are focused on achieving the following three key priorities:
Three key behaviors and three key priorities to perform everything we do more transparently, effectively, and more efficiently.
Budget: Sometimes there is a temptation to see budgets of federal departments as dollars spent somewhere else, but the vast majority of VA's budget each year is spent at our infrastructure nodes in your states and territories: hospitals, CBOCs, regional offices, mobile clinics, and cemeteries.
President Obama's 2012 budget request seeks $132.2 billion in 2012—$61.9 billion in discretionary funding and $70.3 billion in mandatory funding. Discretionary funding increases by $5.9 billion, or 10.6 percent, over the 2010 enacted budget.
Mandatory funding, on the other hand, decreased $969 million—1.4 percent below 2010, due to one-time retroactive Agent Orange payments for three new presumptions [ischemic heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and hairy cell & other B-cell leukemias].
2013 advanced appropriations for medical care increases $1.9 billion [to $52.75 billion], 3.5 percent above the 2012 budget.
Priorities: With a generous budget from the President and Congress, we intend to produce the following deliverables over the next two years:
Access: In 2008, 7.8 million Veterans were enrolled in VA. In 2012, enrollment is expected to reach 8.6 million Veterans. Access includes outreach, education, construction, and telehealth technologies. Claims Backlog: In 2009, we produced 977,000 disability claims decisions and took in over 1 million claims in return. In 2010, we produced a million claims decisions, for the first time ever, but received 1.2 million claims in return.
This year we expect 1.45 million claims submissions. The only way to dominate this kind of growth in numbers is to automate, and quickly, and we are doing that with pilot programs across the Nation. VBA's 2011 budget sought a 27 percent increase over the 2010 budget, much of it for automation and IT. And, as we automate, our goal will be to increase accuracy—84 percent today, 98 percent in 2015 and to reduce the time to process a claim to no more than 125 days.
What VA is doing to Assist Your States:
The recent expansion of the new Post 9/11 GI Bill provides for vocational training and other non-college degree producing programs to assist in technical training and to provide jobs for Veterans in your states who do not want to pursue four-year degrees.
VA's Yellow Ribbon program permits eligible Veterans and servicemembers to attend private colleges and universities, whose costs exceed the highest in-state rates at public undergraduate institutions. VA will match whatever is contributed by private colleges and universities, up to 50 percent of those total costs. We are grateful that so many schools have joined this effort, and we thank them for their support of Veterans. If schools in your state have not signed up for this program, doing so is a great way to support Veterans in your area.
That's a quick status report on our programs at the moment. I look forward to working our priorities with you. VA has a significant presence in each of your states. I hope, as time permits, you will work closely not only with your states' directors of Veterans affairs, but also with VA leaders. Get to know our medical center and regional office directors, and the VISN leadership [Veterans Integrated Services Network] serving your areas. They work for the federal government, but they live, work, and provide care, services, and benefits to Veterans in your states and territories. Now, I'm happy to take your questions.