Commander Wong, I'm honored to be here. Thank you for that generous introduction. We all owe the American Legion our gratitude for its unwavering devotion to all Veterans, not just its members, through its many civic initiatives and community projects that make things better for Veterans, their families, and our communities. Let me further acknowledge:
For 93 years now, the American Legion has been the strong and consistent voice, advocating for Veterans healthcare and benefits, especially for Veterans education, which is your legacy for millions of Veteran students as a result of the original GI Bill of Rights. You have been the voice for generations of Americans who have come home from war. Nothing speaks as eloquently of your commitment to them as your Heroes to Hometown initiative, supporting the most severely wounded soldiers, and helping them and their families cope with the aftermath of battle. From Boys State and Boys Nation, to American Legion baseball, to scouting and volunteer projects, your community support initiatives have nurtured our best hopes and ideals as a Nation.
That Nation has been at war for much of the last decade, and the repeated deployments of the men and women in our formations have created issues that don't show up right away. More are surviving catastrophic injuries, but higher survival rates also mean more complex casualties: the compounding effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), and multiple amputations—five quadruple amputees from this war—with the added complications of blindness and deafness and genito-urinary injuries. It takes a superb, disciplined fighting force to handle this kind of strain. The men and women who wear our Nation's uniforms today are magnificent, and the Legion's support of them has been equally magnificent.
The President is unable to be here today, but has asked me to report to you on the state of your VA, how things looked three-and-half years ago, what changes have been made to care for this current generation of Veterans and every generation that preceded it, and where VA is headed in the future.
In 2009, of the over 23 million living Veterans in this country, only 7.4 million of them were enrolled in VA healthcare and only three million were receiving compensation and pension benefits. We had an outreach problem; many didn't know about VA. We had an access problem, even if they knew about us, some couldn't get in. And even then, we had been carrying a backlog in compensation claims for decades.
Over the past three-and-a-half years, VA has decided 2.9 million Veterans' claims and will likely break a million claims again this year. That will mean that we will have processed nearly four million claims through the end of this year. So when people talk about the 580,000 compensation claims, which are backlogged today, they aren't talking about claims that were here three-and-a-half years ago—not two years ago—and for the most part, not even a year ago. The backlog is real, but no one is standing at parade rest. This is a dynamic process, and as we pushed 2.9 million claims out the door, 3.5 million claims came in.
Three-and-a-half years ago, we were also still grappling with some unresolved issues from past wars—the Gulf War, over 20 years ago, and the Vietnam War, nearly 50 years ago now. We didn't take care of business when we should have decades ago, and some Veterans were dying without benefits.
Three-and-a-half years ago, an estimated 107,000 Veterans were homeless in this rich and powerful country. The President has said, "[We won't] be satisfied until every Veteran who has fought for America has a home in America." Homelessness has been a Veterans' issue for decades. The economic downturn of 2008 threatened to send it spiraling out of control. In spite of all this, the President was resolute, clear, and unwavering: it is immoral for anyone who has defended this country to be homeless in America.
Well, that was the landscape in 2009. After consulting with key stakeholders, including the American Legion, we settled on three key priorities, which remain unchanged today:
Delivering on these priorities required a closer, more collaborative working relationship with DoD. Very little of what we do in VA originates in VA; most of what we work on originates in DoD. So, the seamless transition of Servicemembers departing military service is crucial to increasing access, eliminating the backlog, and ending the shame of Veterans' homelessness. Warm handoffs of transitioning Servicemembers require the synergy of both departments.
Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and I have personally met nine times in the last 18 months on issues such as these. Secretary Panetta and I will meet a tenth time in mid-September. A month ago, he and I testified, for the first time together, before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Among our accomplishments, we have committed both of our departments to a single, common, joint, integrated electronic health record (IEHR)—open in architecture, non-proprietary in design. We expect initial operating capability in 2014 and full operating capability in 2017. We intend that this transition from DoD to VA will be seamless and productive for all Veterans.
So DoD/VA collaboration was priority one. Priority two was fixing VA's budget process. Creating change requires stable, predictable budgets; if we want to go faster, those budgets will have to be robust.
In 2009, the VA budget totaled $99.8 billion. Congressionally enhanced, it was a good budget. In 2010, the President increased that budget from $99.8 billion to $127.2 billion—an almost 30 percent increase in a single year. Importantly, the President's 2013 budget request, currently before the Congress, is for $140.3 billion—a 40 percent increase since 2009.
I was once asked, "Mr. Secretary, what do you value?" It was an impromptu question. And before I could respond, I was told: "Don't answer that. Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." By that standard, this 40 percent increase in VA's budget tells you what the President values. He understands our obligation to Veterans, and he has provided the robust funding needed to better care for them today and, simultaneously, to transform this department for its 21st century responsibilities.
Now, what have we put into motion at VA in the past three-and-half years? First, to increase access, we have added 57 new community-based outpatient clinics, 20 more mobile health clinics, and a fifth polytrauma center in San Antonio, Texas. We have three new hospitals under construction: Denver, Orlando, and New Orleans. We just opened a spectacular, state-of-the-art VA medical center in Las Vegas three weeks ago—the first new VA hospital in 17 years. As President Obama remarked recently, "We keep our promises."
We have also invested heavily in new telehealth-telemedicine initiatives to overcome the tyranny of distance. Enhanced IT technologies also make it easier for Veterans to make appointments, access medical specialists, retrieve their medical records, and find out about available benefits and services, all without driving.
Besides initiatives like these to increase access, we also made decisions to take care of some longstanding issues:
These three decisions alone have dramatically expanded access to VA for nearly a million Veterans. Now, making these decisions is step one; step two is dealing with the increase in compensation claims that will result. Growth in the number of claims and the backlog was predictable, and we indicated, when we made these decisions, that we were going to take that on. It was the right thing to do—for Vietnam Veterans, for Gulf War Veterans, and for combat Veterans of all wars. And, we will do it again, whenever the opportunity to better serve Veterans presents itself. Let's not back away from such decisions because we didn't want the backlog to grow. Let's keep our priorities straight here.
VA has spent the past two years developing a new automation tool called VBMS, a paperless Veterans Benefits Management System. It's being piloted at two regional offices for over a year now. We'll have VBMS up and running at 16 regional offices by the end of the year, and at all 56 regional offices by the end of 2013.
VBMS is key to VA's automating this massive numbers process that saw us take in 3.5 million claims, while producing 2.9 million claims decisions over the past three-and-half years. We are still receiving paper from DoD. VBMS is here and about to be fielded. In 2014, we will expect DoD to begin providing all transition documentation in electrons. That's how we will dominate the large numbers in claims. The President's budgets provide us the resources needed to end the backlog in 2015.
In 2009, I observed that Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, suicides, and they rank right up there in joblessness, as well. We've had a full-court press on to rescue Veterans from the streets. As I indicated earlier, the estimated number of homeless Veterans in this country in 2009 was 107,000. By 2011, in spite of the extended economic downturn, that estimate had dropped to 67,500. When HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, announces its 2012 estimate of homeless Veterans, we expect that the number will be below 60,000, keeping us on track to break 35,000 in 2013, and ending the "rescue phase" of Veterans' homelessness in 2015.
The "prevention phase" of Veteran homelessness is ongoing and will continue indefinitely, requiring VA to focus its significant capabilities on keeping at-risk Veterans and families from slipping into that downward spiral that ends in homelessness.
For example, we have roughly 800,000 Veterans and eligible family members in training and education today—in universities, colleges, community colleges, tech schools, and in the trades. They must graduate; anyone who flunks out in this economy is at high risk of homelessness. Prevention. Stay in school; complete your studies. So my one-word speech to student Veterans, as I did at Boise State University last month, is "Graduate! Graduate! If I sound like your dad, I am. I'm paying most of your bills. So, graduate!"
Last year, roughly 86,000 of our 1.3 million Veteran mortgage-holders defaulted on their home loans. VA intervened, working with their financial institutions, lowering payments, extending payment periods, and kept 73,000 of those Veterans and families in their homes. Prevention! We could say the same things about depression, substance abuse, and suicide ideation. You can't roll your sleeves up and wring your hands at the same time. We, in VA, have rolled our sleeves up.
Mental health: In 2005, at the height of operations in Iraq, we had 13,000 mental health professionals handling the healthcare needs of our Veterans. Today, that number is greater than 20,000, and we recently announced that we're hiring 1,600 more clinical staff to address the growth in mental health requirements spawned by a decade of tough, high risk, high stress, repetitive, combat deployments.
We know that when we diagnose and treat, people get better. Among the 8.6 million Veterans enrolled in VA healthcare, mental health treatment is up. At the same time, for Veterans receiving VA treatment, our suicide rates are down. Treatment works.
However, too many Veterans still leave the military with mental health issues we never find out about. Most Veterans who commit suicide—perhaps as many as two-out-of-three—were never enrolled in VA. So as good as we think we are, we can't help those we don't treat. Another reason increasing access and developing a seamless transition between DoD and VA is so important. These are magnificent young people, and we will not let them down.
One of our most successful outreach 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, no cost to DoD. Since 2007, over 640,000 people have called in, including over 8,000 active-duty Servicemembers. We've made over 99,000 referrals for care and rescued over 23,000 from potential suicide. Younger Veterans are more comfortable with chatting and texting, so in 2009 we added on-line chat, and in 2011, a texting service. We will always find ways to reach out to Veterans in need
Good jobs are essential for Veterans, and we are proud to have partnered with the First Lady's "Joining Forces" initiative and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's "Hiring Our Heroes" campaign. The President challenged private companies to hire or train 100,000 Veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013. 2,100 companies have committed to 175,000 hires, and 125,000 Veterans and spouses have already been hired.
VA has held its own hiring fairs in Washington, DC, and Detroit in the first six months of this year. Over 12,000 Veterans showed up, and over 8,000 interviews were conducted, and more than 1,700 job offers were made on the spot. Job offers continue to flow.
We have also conducted two Veteran-owned small-business training expositions in the past 12 months—our opportunity to educate Veteran small business owners on our procurement requirements and allow the 3,500 who showed up to demonstrate their capabilities and improve their preparation of competitive proposals for government contracts. Bottom line: Veterans hire Veterans. So the more successful Veteran entrepreneurs we cultivate, the better the opportunities for Veterans employment.
So where are we headed? Next summer, here's what VA will report to this convention. Between 2009 and 2013:
"Show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value." The President's budgets value what Veterans, their families, and our survivors have meant to this country.
In closing, a little bit of personal history. As a young battalion commander serving in Cold War Germany, I heard one of our senior generals declare in a Memorial Day speech: "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." Then he pointed east and said, "And not far from here, there are people, a whole nation, who cannot say that and would not really understand the fundamental importance of those words."Well, his words have stuck with me. I realized that I had been taking the privilege of my American citizenship a bit for granted. You see, those words are my legacy as well: "I know that when I die, I will die a free man, on my feet, not on my knees, with my head up, not bowed." And those words are your legacy also. And because we share that legacy, our children and grandchildren inherit it from us—they are able to make the same unequivocal statement. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath such a legacy to others. The oppressed cannot. And the free who are not willing to fight and die for it cannot. Only the free who cherish freedom and love liberty enough to fight for it can bequeath the gift of freedom to others, as our ancestors did for us, and as members of the Legion have for 93 years. Thank you for your service and for preserving my legacy as a free man.
God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. God bless our President. And may God continue to bless this wonderful country of ours.