STATEMENT OF THE HONORABLE ANTHONY J. PRINCIPI
SECRETARY OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
FOR PRESENTATION BEFORE THE
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON APPROPRIATIONS
DEPARTMENTS OF VETERANS' AFFAIRS AND HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT AND INDEPENDENT AGENCIES APPROPRIATIONS SUBCOMMITTEE
March 26, 2003
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, good morning. I am pleased to be here today to present the President’s 2004 budget proposal for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The centerpiece of this budget is our strategy to bring balance back to our health care system priorities. I have by my decisions and by my actions focused VA health care on veterans in the highest statutory priority groups—the service-connected, the lower income, and those veterans who need our specialized services. This budget reflects those priorities.
The President’s 2004 budget request totals $63.6 billion—$33.4 billion for entitlement programs and $30.2 billion for discretionary programs. This represents an increase of $3.3 billion, which includes a 7.7 percent rise in discretionary funding, over the enacted level for 2003, and supports my three highest priorities:
Virtually all of the growth in discretionary resources will be devoted to VA’s health care system. Including medical care collections, funding for medical programs rises by $2.1 billion. As a key component of our medical care budget, we are requesting $225 million to begin the restructuring of our infrastructure as part of the implementation of the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) program.
We are presenting our 2004 request using a new budget account structure that more readily presents the funding for each of the benefits we provide veterans. This will allow the Department and our stakeholders to more effectively evaluate the program results we achieve with the total resources associated with each program.
The President’s 2004 budget includes $27.5 billion for medical care, including $2.1 billion in collections, and represents an 8.0 percent increase over the enacted level for 2003. These resources will ensure we can provide health care for over 4.8 million unique patients in 2004.
The primary reason VA exists is to care for service-connected disabled veterans. They have made enormous sacrifices to help preserve freedom, and many continue to live with physical and psychological scars directly resulting from their military service to this Nation. Every action we take must focus first and foremost on their needs. In addition, our primary constituency includes veterans with lower incomes and those who have special health care needs. By sharpening the focus of our health care system on these core groups, we will be positioned to achieve our primary care access standards.
The demand for VA health care has risen dramatically in recent years. From 1996 to 2002, the number of patients to whom we provided health care grew by 54 percent. Among veterans in Priority Groups 7 and 8 alone, the number treated in 2002 was about 11 times greater than it was in 1996. The combined effect of several factors has resulted in this large increase in the demand for VA health care services.
First, the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 and the Veterans Millennium Health Care Act of 1999 opened the door to comprehensive health care services to all veterans. Second, the national reputation and public perception of VA as a leader in the delivery of quality health care services has steadily risen, due in part to widespread acknowledgement of our major advances in quality and patient safety. Third, access to health care has greatly improved with the opening of hundreds of community-based outpatient clinics. Fourth, our patient population is growing older and this has led to an increase in veterans’ need for health care services. Fifth, VA has favorable pharmacy benefits compared to other health care providers, especially Medicare, and this has attracted many veterans to our system. And finally, some feel that public disenchantment with Health Maintenance Organizations, along with their economic failure, may have caused many patients to seek out established and traditional sources of health care such as VA. All of these factors have put a severe strain on our ability to continue to provide timely, high-quality health care, especially for those veterans who are our core mission.
Through a combination of proposed regulatory and legislative changes, as well as a request for additional resources, our 2004 budget will help restore balance to our health care system priorities and ensure we continue to provide the best care possible to our highest priority veterans. The most significant changes presented in this budget are to:
Revolutionary advances in medicine moved acute medical care out of institutional beds and rendered obsolete “bed count” as a measure of health care capacity. The same process is underway in long-term care and this budget proposes to focus VA’s long-term care efforts on increased access to long-term care for veterans, rather than counting institutional beds. This budget focuses long-term care on the patient and his or her needs. Our policies expand access to non-institutional care programs that will allow veterans to live and be cared for in the comfort and familiar setting of their home surrounded by their family.
While we will shift our emphasis to non-institutional forms of long-term care, we will continue to provide institutional long-term care to veterans who need it the most—veterans with service-connected disabilities rated 70 percent or greater and those who require transitional, post-acute care. Coupled with this, our budget continues strong support for grants for state nursing homes.
In addition, we are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to implement the plan by which Priority 8 veterans aged 65 and older, who cannot enroll in VA’s health care system, can gain access to a new “VA+Choice Medicare” plan. This would allow for these veterans to be able to use their Medicare benefits to obtain care from VA. In return, we would receive payments from a private health plan contracting with Medicare to cover the cost of the health care we provide. The “VA+Choice Medicare” plan will become effective later this year as the two Departments finalize the details of the plan.
Coupled with my recent decision on enrollment, these proposed regulatory and legislative changes would help ensure that sufficient resources will be available to provide timely, high-quality health care services to our highest priority veterans. If these new initiatives are implemented, veterans comprising our core mission population will account for 75 percent of all unique patients in 2004, a share noticeably higher than the 67 percent they held in 2002. During 2004, we will treat 167,000 more veterans in Priority Groups 1-6 (those with service-connected disabilities, lower-income veterans, and those needing specialized care).
In return for the resources we are requesting for the medical care program, we will be able to build upon our noteworthy performance achievements during the past 2 years. During 2002, VA received national recognition for its delivery of high-quality health care from the Institute of Medicine in the report titled “Leadership by Example.” In addition, the Department received the Pinnacle Award from the American Pharmaceutical Association Foundation in June 2002 for its creation of a bar code medication administration system. This important patient safety initiative ensures that the correct medication is administered to the correct patient at the proper time. Patient satisfaction rose significantly last year, as 7 of every 10 inpatients and outpatients rated VA health care service as very good or excellent.
We will continue to use clinical practice guidelines to help ensure high-quality health care, as they are directly linked with improved health outcomes. We will employ this approach most extensively in the management of chronic disease and in disease prevention. For 16 of the 18 quality of care indicators for which comparable data from managed care organizations are available, VA is the benchmark exceeding the best competitor’s performance.
Mr. Chairman, one of our most important focus areas in our 2004 budget is to significantly reduce waiting times, particularly for patients who are using our health care system for the first time. As we begin to rebalance our health care system with a heightened emphasis on our core service population, we will drive down waiting times. By 2004, VA will achieve our objective of 30 days for the average waiting time for new patients seeking an appointment at a primary care clinic. In addition, we have set a performance goal of 30 days for the average waiting time for an appointment in a specialty clinic. With this budget and the enacted funding level for 2003, we will eliminate the waiting list by the end of 2003.
We remain firmly committed to managing our medical care resources with increasing efficiency each year. The 2004 budget includes management savings of $950 million. These savings will partially offset the need for additional funds to care for an aging patient population that will require an ever-increasing degree of health care service, and rising costs associated with a sharply growing reliance on pharmaceuticals necessary to treat patients with complex, chronic conditions. We will achieve these management savings by implementing a rigorous competitive sourcing plan, reforming the health care procurement process, increasing employee productivity, increasing VA/DoD sharing, continuing to shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, and reducing requirements for supplies and employee travel.
Our projection of medical care collections for 2004 is $2.1 billion. This total is 32 percent above our estimated collections for 2003 and will nearly triple our 2001 collections. By implementing a series of aggressive steps identified in our revenue cycle improvement plan, we are already making great strides towards maximizing the availability of health care resources. For example, we have mandated that all medical facilities establish patient pre-registration to include the use of software that assists in gathering and updating information on patient insurance. We are in the midst of a series of pilot projects at four Veterans Integrated Service Networks to test the implementation of a new business plan that calls for reconfiguration of the revenue collection program by using both in-house and contract models. In addition, the Department will award the Patient Financial Services System this spring to Network 10 (Ohio) which will acquire and deploy a commercial system of this type. This project involves comprehensive implementation of standard business practices and information technology improvements.
As you know Mr. Chairman, one of the President’s management initiatives calls for VA and the Department of Defense (DoD) to enhance the coordination of the delivery of benefits and service to veterans. Over the past year, our two Departments have undertaken unprecedented efforts to improve cooperation and sharing in a variety of areas through a Joint Executive Council (JEC). To expand the scope of interdepartmental cooperation, a benefits committee has been added to complement the longstanding Health Executive Council. The VA and DoD Benefits Executive Council is exploring improved transfer and access to military personnel records and a pilot project for a joint physical examination to improve the claims process for military personnel. The JEC provides overarching policy direction, sets strategic vision and priorities for the health and benefits committees, and serves as a forum for senior leaders to oversee coordination of initiatives. To address some of the remaining challenges, the Departments have identified numerous high-priority items for improved coordination such as the joint strategic mission and planning process, computerized patient medical records, eligibility and enrollment systems, joint separation physicals and compensation and pension examinations, and a joint consolidated mail-out pharmacy pilot.
Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES)
The 2004 budget includes $225 million of capital funding to move forward with the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) initiative. This program addresses the needed infrastructure realignment for the health care delivery system and will allow the Department to provide veterans with the right care, at the right place, and at the right time. CARES will assess veterans’ health care needs across the country, identify delivery options to meet those needs in the future, and guide the realignment and allocation of capital assets so that we can optimize health care delivery in terms of both quality and access.
As demonstrated in Veterans Integrated Service Network 12, restructuring will require significant investment to achieve a system that is appropriately sized for our future. Our preliminary estimate for resources that can be redirected to medical care between now and 2010 as a result of the appropriate alignment of assets and health care services, and the sale or enhanced-use leasing of underutilized or non-performing assets, is $6.8 billion. It is extremely important to have funding in 2004 to begin the multiyear effort to restructure. Given the timing associated with identifying CARES projects, we will be working with your committee on the authorization process in order not to delay the start of these projects.
Mr. Chairman, we are requesting $822 million in funding for VA’s clinical research program, an increase of 2.6 percent from the 2003 level. For the first time, our request includes funds in the form of salary support for clinical researchers, resources that previously were a component of the Medical Care request. This approach provides a more complete picture of VA’s resources devoted to this program. In addition to the Department’s funding request, nearly $700 million in funding support comes from other federal agencies such as DoD and the National Institutes of Health, as well as universities and other private institutions.
This $1.5 billion will support more than 2,700 high-priority research projects to expand knowledge in areas critical to veterans’ health care needs—Gulf War illnesses, diabetes, heart disease, chronic viral diseases, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, prostate cancer, depression, environmental hazards, women’s health care concerns, and rehabilitation programs.
The Department’s 2004 budget request includes $33.7 billion for the entitlement and discretionary costs supporting the six business lines administered by the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). Within this total, $1.17 billion is included for the management of these programs—compensation; pension; education; vocational rehabilitation and employment; housing; and insurance.
Improving the timeliness and accuracy of claims processing is a Presidential priority, and during the last year we have made excellent progress toward achieving this goal. A year ago, I testified that I had set a performance goal of processing compensation and pension claims in an average of 100 days by the summer of 2003. I am pleased to report that we are on target to meet that goal and we will maintain that improved timeliness standard for 2004. When we reach this goal, we will have reduced the time it takes to process claims by more than 50 percent from the 2002 level.
At the same time that we are improving timeliness, we will be increasing the accuracy of our claims processing. The 2004 performance goal for the national accuracy rate is 90 percent, a figure 10 percentage points higher than last year’s level of performance, and markedly above the accuracy rate of 59 percent in 2000.
The driving force that will allow us to make this kind of progress with only a slight budget increase continues to be the initiatives we are implementing from the Claims Processing Task Force I established in 2001. Located at the Cleveland Regional Office, our Tiger Team has been working over the last year to eliminate the backlog of claims pending over 1 year, especially for veterans 70 years of age or older. This aggressive effort of reducing the backlog and improving timeliness is underway at all of our regional offices. VBA has established specialized processing teams, such as triage, pre-determination, rating, post-determination, appeals, and public contact. Other Task Force initiatives, such as changing the procedure for remands, revising the time requirements for gathering evidence, and consolidating the maintenance of pension processing at three sites, have allowed us to free up resources to work on direct processing at the regional offices.
This budget includes additional staff and resources for new and ongoing information technology projects to support improved claims processing. We are requesting $6.7 million for the Virtual VA project that will replace the current paper-based claims folder with electronic images and data that can be accessed and transferred electronically through a web-based solution. We are seeking $3.8 million for the Compensation and Pension Evaluation Redesign, a project that will result in a more consistent claims examination process. In addition, we are requesting $2.6 million in 2004 for the Training and Performance Support Systems, a multi-year initiative to implement five comprehensive training and performance support systems for positions critical to the processing of claims.
In support of the education program, the budget proposes $7.4 million for continuing the development of the Education Expert System. These resources will be used to expand upon an existing prototype expert system and will enable us to automate a greater portion of the education claims process and expand enrollment certification. This initiative will contribute toward achievement of our 2004 performance goal of reducing the average time it takes to process claims for original and supplemental education benefits to 27 days and 12 days, respectively.
VA is requesting $13.2 million for the One-VA Telephone Access project, an initiative that will support all of VBA’s benefits programs. This initiative will result in the development of a Virtual Information Center that forms a single telecommunications network among several regional offices. This technology will allow us to answer calls at any place and at any time without complex call routing devices.
All of these information technology projects are consistent with the Department’s Enterprise Architecture and will be supported by improved project administration from our Chief Information Officer.
The President’s 2004 budget includes $428 million for VA’s burial program, which includes operating and capital funding for the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), the burial benefits program administered by VBA, and the State Cemetery Grant program. This total is $17 million, or 4.2 percent, over the 2003 level.
This budget request includes $4.3 million for the activation and operation of five new national cemeteries in 2004. NCA plans to open fast-track sections for interments at four new national cemeteries planned for Atlanta, South Florida, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Fort Sill National Cemetery opened a small, fast-track section for interments in November 2001, and Phase 1 construction of this cemetery should be complete by June 2003. In addition to resources for these five new cemeteries, this budget request also includes resources to prepare for the future opening of a fast-track section of an additional national cemetery near Sacramento. The locations of these national cemeteries were identified in a May 2000 report to Congress as the six areas most in need of a new national cemetery.
With the opening of these new cemeteries, VA will increase the proportion of veterans served by a burial option within 75 miles of their residence to nearly 82 percent.
The $108.9 million in construction funding for the burial program in 2004 includes resources for Phase 1 development of the Detroit cemetery, expansion and improvements at cemeteries in Fort Snelling, Minnesota and Barrancas, Florida, as well as $32 million for the State Cemetery Grant program.
The budget request includes $10 million to support the Department’s commitment to ensuring that the appearance of national cemeteries is maintained in a manner befitting a national shrine. One of the key performance goals for the burial program is that 98 percent of survey respondents rate the appearance of national cemeteries as excellent.
A new performance measure established for NCA is marking graves in a timely manner after interment. We have established a 2004 performance goal of marking 75 percent of graves in national cemeteries within 60 days of interment. When we achieve this goal, it will represent a dramatic improvement over the 2002 level of 49 percent.
Mr. Chairman, we have made excellent progress during the last year in implementing, or developing, several management initiatives that address our goal of applying sound business principles to all of the Department’s operations. We are particularly pleased with our accomplishments in addressing the President’s Management Agenda that focuses on strategies to improve the management of the Federal government in five areas—human capital; competitive sourcing; financial performance; electronic government; and budget and performance integration.
We have developed a sound workforce and succession plan that includes strategies VA will pursue to implement a more corporate approach to human capital management, and a workforce analysis of several of the Department’s critical positions—physicians, nurses, and compensation and pension veterans service representatives. We are moving forward with a competitive sourcing study of our laundry service, and other studies will be conducted of our pathology and laboratory services, and facilities management and operations. With regard to financial performance, we achieved an unqualified audit opinion for the fourth consecutive year. During 2003 and 2004, we will be involved in 10 electronic government studies. And finally, we continue to progress in our efforts to better integrate resources with results. One major accomplishment in this area is the restructuring of our budget accounts. This new account structure is presented in our 2004 budget and will lead to a more complete understanding of the full cost of each of our programs.
VA has a variety of other management improvement efforts underway that will lead to greater efficiency and will be accomplished largely through centralization of several of our major business processes. I am committed to reforming the way we conduct our information technology (IT) business, and to help the Department meet this objective, we have aggressively pursued new approaches to accomplishing our IT goals. We have developed a One-VA enterprise strategy, embarked on a nationwide telecommunications modernization program, and laid a solid foundation for a Departmental cyber security program. In order to facilitate and enhance these efforts, I recently centralized the IT program, including authority, personnel, and funding, in the office of the Chief Information Officer. This realignment will serve to strengthen the IT program overall and ensure that our efforts remain focused on building the infrastructure needed to better serve our Nation’s veterans.
This budget includes $10.1 million to continue the development of the One VA Enterprise Architecture and to integrate this effort into key Departmental processes such as capital planning, budgeting, and project management oversight. Our request also includes $26.5 million for cyber security initiatives to protect our IT assets nationwide. These initiatives aim to establish and maintain a secure Department-wide IT framework upon which VA business processes can reliably deliver high-quality services to veterans.
The 2004 budget includes funds to continue the CoreFLS project to replace VA’s existing core financial management and logistics systems—and many of the legacy systems interfacing with them—with an integrated, commercial off-the-shelf package. CoreFLS will help VA address and correct management and financial weaknesses in the areas of effective integration of financial transactions from VA systems, necessary financial support for credit reform initiatives, and improved automated analytical and reconciliation tools. Testing of CoreFLS is underway, with full implementation scheduled for 2006.
We are developing a realignment proposal for finance, acquisition, and capital asset functions in the Department. A major aspect of this effort centers on instituting much clearer delegations of authority and improved lines of accountability. This plan would establish a business office concept across the Department and would enhance corporate discipline that will lead to uniformity in operations and greater accountability, and will make the transition to the new financial and logistics system much easier to implement. A component of the plan under review and consideration will result in a consolidated business approach for all finance, acquisition, and capital asset management activities.
Mr. Chairman, I am proud of our achievements during the last year. However, we still have a great deal of work to do in order to accomplish the goals I established nearly 2 years ago. I feel very confident that the President’s 2004 budget request for VA will position us to reach our goals and to continue to provide timely, high-quality benefits and services to those who have served this Nation with honor.
That concludes my formal remarks. My staff and I would be pleased to answer any questions.