Remarks by Secretary Eric K. Shinseki
National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs Winter Conference
February 11, 2014
Good morning. Welcome back to D.C.
Clyde Marsh, —many thanks for that kind introduction, and for your leadership of NASDVA, and let me also thank your leadership for their service to Veterans. I wish to also acknowledge:
- LTC Tanya Bradsher, US Army, retired, Iraq War Veteran, who continues her service here in the White House Office of Public Engagement, and who is our host for today’s meeting. Tanya, thanks for all that you do for Servicemembers, Veterans, families, and survivors, each and every day;
- COL Rich Morales, Executive Director of the Joining Forces Initiative—thanks, as well, for your outstanding work with the First Lady and Dr. Biden in addressing employment, education, and wellness issues for Veterans and military spouses;
- Fellow Vietnam Veteran, former President of NASDVA, and until recently, VA’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs, John Garcia—I’ve relied heavily on John these past four years, and we will miss him greatly;
- Other VA colleagues, fellow Veterans, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:
Thank you all for the great work you do for Veterans, both as directors of your own state programs and as members of a variety of VA advisory committees. We now have 12 past or current state directors on six of our advisory committees, and we’re always looking to fill vacancies as they occur.
You and I signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen our partnership. I am committed to making the most of that agreement. In a few minutes, we will fulfill one of our action items—formal recognition of states that have provided outstanding support to Veterans. Today’s awards will acknowledge three stellar performances to (1) increase Veterans’ access to VA’s benefits and services, (2) help eliminate the backlog in disability claims, and (3) mobilize a national initiative to end Veterans’ homelessness in this country.
Two other awards will be given this year for outstanding accomplishments—one, encouraging the creation and use of Veterans courts, and two, supporting the First Lady’s Joining Forces Initiative. For right now, let me congratulate all of you for your submissions. There were many quality performances. We’ll get to these awards shortly.
In January 2009, I said that we would move quickly to get as much done as possible in whatever time we had together. Since then and with your advice and assistance, the support of Veteran service organizations, and the leadership of the President, we have achieved some significant results:
- VA’s budget has grown by $50 billion, thanks to the President’s leadership and unwavering commitment to Veterans;
- More than 2 million additional Veterans have enrolled in VA healthcare;
- We have opened over 60 new community-based outpatient clinics—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;
- In FY 2013, VA funded the construction of 15 new state cemeteries, three new state Veterans homes [Radcliff, KY; Salem, OR; and Montgomery, TN], and a 40-bed addition in Richmond, Virginia.
- We currently have 12 new homes and a total of 63 projects that are on the priority-one list for VA funding—and 105 additional projects, including 15 new homes, that have been approved for funding but are awaiting the states’ matching funds.
- 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;
- An average of 115,000 Veterans a year have been laid to rest in our national cemeteries—124,000 last fiscal year. Nearly 90 percent of all Veterans now have a burial option within 75 miles of home;
- 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;
- Last fiscal year, 74,000 Veteran home-mortgage holders who defaulted on their home loans were kept from foreclosure and eviction because we worked out best arrangements with the appropriate financial institutions. We weren’t able to save everyone, but with a variety of tools we were able to rapidly rehouse many and provide supportive services to Veterans’ families. Our work here continues, and we are still focused on ending the rescue phase of homelessness in 2015;
- 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. They can help lead the rebuilding of our economy, but they need jobs, education, and quality healthcare to make the transition from combat to the commercial sector. And that’s why all of our efforts, including Joining Forces and the Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes campaign, are crucial to getting us to the tipping point.
The accomplishments I listed at the outset are what VA has been focused on for the past five years—providing more opportunity for Veterans to secure their place in the middle class, whether through healthcare, education and training, or 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, not better managing, 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 10 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 investments, built infrastructure, and implemented programs that ensure Veterans get support to both prevent a decline into homelessness and also to exit homelessness, if they find themselves there.
These efforts have paid off for homeless Veterans. Last November, HUD announced our January 2013 point-in-time estimates: 57,849 homeless Veterans in this country. That’s a 24 percent decline since 2010. We should remember that during periods of economic downturn, homelessness traditionally increases—and the longer the downturn, the steeper the rate of homelessness. We’ve had five years of slowed economic growth, and remarkably, we have been able to drive Veterans’ homelessness down by 24 percent, breaking that traditional curve. You have all helped in doing that. Well done.
Ending the rescue phase of Veteran homelessness in 2015 is achievable, but only with your active participation. Last year, VA helped more than 42,000 Veterans find permanent housing and awarded about $300 million in grants to our community partners for supportive services for Veteran families. All told, nearly 260,000 Veterans and family members were served through VA’s specialized homeless programs in FY 2013.
Our progress is a product of our partnerships—some 4,900 of them altogether—with other federal agencies, with state and local governments, with non-profits, and with private sector businesses. 2014 is another year of action, for greater collaboration. Over the next two years, we must find, engage, and rescue every homeless Veteran living on the street and prevent those at-risk Veterans from falling into homelessness. Together, we can end the rescue phase of Veterans’ homelessness in 2015, so let’s go get it done. These are our brethren.
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 peer support specialists to augment the work of those clinicians. Staffing is under constant review, and we will adjust where needed.
Following the President’s national mental health summit last June, and the White House’s conference on the mental health needs of Veterans and military families in July, at the President’s direction, VA hosted local mental health summits at each of our 151 medical centers, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders.
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, to deliver care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over one million calls from those needing assistance—Veterans, their families, and friends. 35,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help. Some of our crisis line staff members will have a booth back at the conference center to tell you more about it. Stop by. I think you will find it of interest.
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 the use of opiates system wide and seeking to reduce them significantly throughout all 21 health care 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.
Finally, 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 (VJO) specialists, working directly with justice officials, to see that Veterans get the care they need and that courts consider the best possible alternatives to 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 treatment court admission. 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 Health Care for Reentry Veterans program (HCRV) 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. If you are not already in contact with the Veterans courts in your state, please check them out. 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 social Rubik’s cube, so all Veterans can leverage their opportunities to take their place in a thriving middle-class, as the President has asked.
Thanks again for your service to the Nation and to Veterans. We at VA cannot possibly meet the needs of all our Nation’s Veterans without you.
God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.