The Department of Veterans Affairs continually hears insight into its disability claims backlog from Congress, the media and veterans organizations, but VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said, "Let it grow. We'll work on it, we'll get it down. But let's keep our priorities straight here - it is about taking care of veterans."
Shinseki made his remarks while addressing The American Legion on Aug. 28 during its 94th Annual National Convention in Indianapolis. The VA Secretary had just noted that 12 more presumptive conditions for disability benefits had been added to VA's list since 2009: three for Vietnam War veterans and nine for veterans of the First Gulf War.
In addition, post-traumatic stress disorder has been made verifiable for all combat veterans, not only those who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. "We granted the presumption of service connection. PTSD is as old as warfare itself," Shinseki said.
Growth in the number of backlog claims was predictable, the VA Secretary said, "and we indicated when we made these decisions that we were going to take them on. It was the right thing to do. And we will do it again, whenever the opportunity to better serve veterans presents itself."
Shinseki made it clear to thousands of Legionnaires listening to him in the convention hall that the claims backlog may have grown in recent years, but many more veterans are now eligible to receive benefits earned through their service - and that is VA's most important priority.
"The men and women who wear our nation's uniforms today are simply magnificent," Shinseki said, "and the Legion's support of them has been equally magnificent."
In 2009, only 3 million of America's 23 million veterans were receiving VA compensation and pension benefits. Through increased access and outreach, VA has decided an additional 2.9 million veterans claims, with another 1 million claims decisions likely for 2012.
"We will have processed nearly 4 million claims (since 2009) by the end of this year," Shinseki said. "So when people talk about the 580,000 compensation claims which are backlogged today, they're not talking about claims that were here three and a half years ago... . The backlog is real, but no one is standing at parade rest."
While VA has handled 2.9 million claims, 3.5 million more have been entered into the system since 2009.
Referring to the Vietnam and First Gulf wars, Shinseki said - in both cases - "we didn't take care of business the way we should have decades ago, and some veterans were dying without benefits."
In 2009, after consulting with the Legion and other key stakeholders, VA settled on three key priorities that are still present today: increase veterans' access to benefits, eliminate the claims backlog and end veterans homelessness by 2015.
Shinseki said delivering on these priorities required a closer, more collaborative working relationship with the Department of Defense. "Much of what we work on in VA begins in DoD. We need warm hand-offs between our departments." Shinseki has met with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta nine times; last month, they testified together before a joint congressional hearing.
Fixing VA's budget process has also been a top priority. "Creating change requires stable, predictable budgets. The fact that we have an advance appropriation, thanks to The American Legion and other VSOs, is a huge step in creating stable and predictable budgets."
In 2009, the VA budget totaled $99.8 billion; it increased to $127 billion in fiscal 2010 and the fiscal 2013 budget request is for $140.3 billion - about a 40-percent increase over 2009 figures.
VA must "fix the issues today and build a stronger, more responsive organization for the long term," Shinseki said. He then listed a number of recent VA expansions: 57 new community-based outpatient clinics, 20 more mobile health clinics, a fifth polytrauma center in San Antonio; three new hospitals under construction in Denver, Orlando and New Orleans; and a "spectacular, state-of-the-art VA medical center in Las Vegas, the first new VA hospital in 17 years."
The Veterans Benefits Management System, scheduled to be operational at all VA regional offices by the end of 2013, will become a key weapon in automating, managing and reducing the claims backlog. Shinseki said VA intends to end the backlog by 2015. "That is our target and we are on track."