The American Legion submitted written testimony to a March 13 hearing on the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) budget request of $163.9 billion for fiscal 2015.
The hearing, held by the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs (HVAC), heard from VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and three of his lieutenants: Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey and Stephen Warren, head of VA's information technology office.
The Legion's testimony addressed the issue of creating a joint lifetime medical record for VA and the Department of Defense (DoD). It wants Congress to ensure adequate oversight and sufficient funding for a project that has "already squandered more than a billion dollars of taxpayer money.... If DoD and VA aren't forced to ensure that their respective vendors work together from the beginning, then Congress needs to withhold authorization of further disbursements, until they can prove that their respective plans are in tandem and complement each other...."
The leases on 27 VA facilities are expiring and the Legion wants Congress to fund these centers as originally planned; the Legion applauds HVAC for addressing this issue by passing the (VA) Major Medical Facility Lease Authorization Act of 2013.
Mandatory funds need to be included in advance appropriations, along with full discretionary funding on all VA accounts. "Veterans and dependents having their compensation and disability checks delayed because Congress refuses to pass an annual budget before being forced to close the federal government, is reprehensible," the Legion said in its written testimony. "Pass full advanced appropriations now."
VA needs to be prepared for a significant increase of younger women veterans, as those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan separate from active duty. The number of women veterans enrolled in the VA health-care system is expected to rise by more than a third over the next three years. Currently, 44 percent of women veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are enrolled in VA health care.
VA has increased its mental health-care staff from about 13,500 in 2005 to more than 20,000 providers in 2011. This increase was made in response to a growing need for psychiatric services among veterans leaving active duty. While the Legion appreciates VA's focus on mental health, it does not want aware and concern sacrificed for other conditions afflicting patients. The Legion also wants Congress to invest in research, screening, diagnosis and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
While the quality of VA health care remains exemplary, it is bound to become inadequate if future access is hampered. Today, 8.3 million out of about 22 million veterans are enrolled in the VA system. If current economic woes and high unemployment rates for veterans remain, VA health care may become more enticing for veterans who have never enrolled. More Vietnam-era veterans are retiring and they may also opt for VA health care. In order to meet the increased levels of demand, funding must also be increased to account for the influx of new patients and rising health-care costs.
In the area of veterans benefits, VA's own figures show that more than 56 percent of veterans with disability benefits claims have been waiting longer than 125 days to get them processed. Through its field research, The American Legion has found the time delays vary widely among VA regional offices – from 76 to 336 days.
Claims accuracy is also a problem, according to data from Legion site visits. While VA rates its claims accuracy in the 90th percentile, the Legion's Regional Office Action Review teams typically find much lower accuracy rates. VA hopes that its Veterans Benefits Management System (VBNS) will eliminate many woes that led to the claims backlog, but electronic solutions are not a "magic bullet." Without real reform for a culture of work that places higher priority on speed rather than accuracy, VA will continue to struggle, no matter what tools are used to process claims.
The American Legion believes a claims processing model must be developed that puts as much emphasis on accuracy as it does on the raw number of claims completed. America's veterans need to have confidence in the work done by VA.
The Legion is concerned about the lack of VA funding in major and minor construction accounts. Based on VA's own cost estimates ($53-$65 billion over a decade), Congress has been underfunding these accounts. "Clearly, if this underfunding continues, VA will never fix its identified deficiencies within its ten-year plan," the Legion said in its written testimony. "Indeed, at current rates, it will take VA almost sixty years to address these current deficiencies."
The Legion's testimony also called for congressional evaluation of VA's health-care plan for rural areas to ensure their adequacy and continued oversight of the Transition Assistance Program (TAP).
Veterans' unemployment remains a serious concern for the Legion, and it has been working with licensing and credentialing agencies to help veterans receive credit for their military training and work experience, so as to move more quickly into productive private-sector careers.
While the VOW to Hire Heroes Act and the Veterans Skills to Jobs Act of 2012 are important steps that The American Legion strongly supported and helped shape, they are only a good start in a long march to improve career opportunities for those who have served in uniform.