Thank you, Commander Eubank, for your very kind introduction and for your leadership over the past year.
Senior Vice Commander DeNoyer—On behalf of Secretary Shinseki, please accept VA's very best wishes as you prepare to assume command of the VFW.
Junior Vice Commander Hamilton and Adjutant General Kent—thank you for all you do for the VFW and for our Veterans.
Executive Director Bob Wallace, with whom I meet regularly to work the issues before us.
Veterans Service Director, Bill Bradshaw—thank you for your invaluable contributions to our communities across the Nation.
Auxiliary President Barnes, Senior Vice President Rankin, and members of the Ladies Auxiliary—
Members of the VFW—Good morning, everyone, and thank you for your invitation to address this 112th National Convention—a tribute to more than a century of service to America's Veterans!
Today, the VFW stands as a powerful voice for Veterans and their families; for every man and women who serves in uniform; and for Americans, from coast-to-coast, who benefit from your civic, community, and charitable contributions.
By any measure, they are remarkable:
I am indeed honored to join you today. And I think it's entirely appropriate for me to be speaking at your convention's Business Session, because, when you get down to it, VA is in the "business" of serving Veterans—with programs and services that, taken together, are the envy of the world.
Our bottom line is Veterans—first, last, and always.
Here's a quick snapshot of our operations: Of our country's approximately 23 million Veterans:
All supported by $126.6 billion in Congressionally-appropriated revenues. That's a pretty big business by any measure. As a matter of fact, our size, scope, and budget give us parity with the ten largest corporations in America.
Almost three years ago, our CEO, President Obama, directed Secretary Shinseki to do two things. First, make things better for Veterans—in other words, improve our quality of services and, while we're at it, improve our level of customer service. And second, transform the Department of Veterans Affairs into a 21st century organization for 21st century Veterans.
Now, the President not only provided that strategic guidance, but he also provided his personal support.
And he did even more than that; he provided the much-needed, scarce resources to get the job done.
When Secretary Shinseki came on board in 2009, VA's budget was $99.8 billion. The following year, President Obama increased that amount, by 16 percent, to $115 billion—the largest single-year budget hike in over 30 years.
This year, the 2011 budget grew to $126.6 billion—and the President's 2012 budget request for next year, currently before Congress, is for $132.2 billion. I don't need to tell you that very few organizations—public, private, for-profit or non-profit—have had this kind of resourcing during these tough economic times.
And every dollar of it is needed to fix and resolve the longstanding issues before our department.
Problems like access to VA services and benefits. I'm talking about things like equity in accessing VA's care; say, for Veterans living in my home state of Massachusetts, and for Veterans living in Big Sky Country, in Montana. I'm talking about distance and convenience to the nearest VA facility. The fact is, we have close to a thousand Veterans living in the Northern Marianas Islands—many travel by air to our Guam community-based outpatient clinic for care and treatment. And I'm talking about outreach and access in terms of telehealth, bringing VA care right into a Veteran's home.
We have a claims process that is difficult to navigate—a 'broken' system, some say—with a backlog that's been years in the making. Here's an eye-opening statistic: In the last decade (FY 2000 and FY 2010), incoming disability claims grew by a staggering 106%.
There's the scourge of Veterans' homelessness, made all the more stinging by the fact we are a Nation at war.
Then there's the longstanding perception that VA has an 'attitude' problem; in some quarters, we're seen as an adversary, not an advocate. Added to that, we are working in a rapidly changing environment.
Since Secretary Shinseki and I first came through the doors of VA Central Office two-and-a-half years ago, our byword has been transformation. More than a band-aid approach to fixing problems both old and new, we've drilled down to their systemic, root causes. We've taken a tough, hard look at our current organization—from top to bottom—to identify areas for improvement in quality, access, value, and service. More than that, we applied commonsense changes to the way we manage. We've set our course for the future:
All this with one goal— improving services for Veterans.
At every juncture, we've challenged our assumptions about our programs and services. And we've measured the worth of our plans, innovations, and initiatives by asking one question: Do they measure up in terms of being Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking?
Let's look at access to VA services.
We've made good progress in reaching out to Veterans—rural Veterans, women Veterans, Veterans who weren't aware of their earned benefits, and Veterans who just plain lost faith in us a long time ago. For example, our initiatives to improve access to healthcare have upped the number of enrolled Veterans by nearly 800,000 in the last two-plus years—that's a 10% increase in the number of Veterans we touch.
We've hired 3,500 mental health professionals so that all Veterans with emergency needs can be seen immediately, and so that no Veteran waits more than 14 days for follow-up care. We've opened 64 new CBOC's between January 2009 and March 2011, bringing some 197,000 Veterans shorter drive times to get health care. And we've increased investments in telehealth to reach Veterans wherever they live and to maintain our unquestioned leadership in this promising field.
We've stepped up the OPTEMPO in serving women Veterans. They now are 14% of our active duty, and 18% of our Guard and Reserve forces. Compare that to 1950, when the percentage of women in uniform was just 2%.
We are adjusting both to the surge in their numbers, and to the complexity of their needs. The nature of warfare—and our military's warfighting doctrine—are putting women on the front-lines as never before, and, as a result, they are sustaining injuries similar to their male counterparts, both in severity and complexity.
What have we done to respond to this changing dynamic?
We are getting the word out. We can't maximize VA care in a vacuum. And that's true for all Veterans, men and women.
Access to benefits has also improved. We have put $2 billion in the hands of 85,000 Vietnam-era Veterans who applied for Agent Orange disability benefits—and we did that in just two years.
With two operational campaigns still underway in Southwest Asia—and with continuing economic challenges here at home—it's essential that we be more demanding of ourselves as an organization. We must be rigorous in our stewardship of resources. We cannot leave one dollar on the table, and, last; we must get the biggest bang for the buck from the investments we make on behalf of Veterans.
When the last combatants come home from Iraq and Afghanistan, DoD's missions may be over, but the demands on VA will just be starting, as the requirements for post-war care and services are likely to grow for another decade or more beyond that.
One of VA's highest priorities is Veterans homelessness. Two-and-a-half years ago, we estimated there were 131,000 homeless Veterans in this country. Today, that estimate is about 80,000. We intend to take that number below 60,000 by June of next year, with the goal of ending this National embarrassment by 2015.
We've made good and measurable progress.
Much of our progress is due to greater partnering, collaboration, and teamwork across the federal and state levels, as well as with our non-profit partners at the local level who are on-the-ground and know the homeless situation firsthand.
VA has a two-pronged mission. Street rescues coupled with robust prevention initiatives to protect the at-risk population suffering from depression, substance abuse, and unemployment.
VA is leveraging its substantial capabilities in terms of primary medical, dental, and mental health care … substance abuse treatment … education … case management … housing … and jobs counseling.
We are taking action to size the homeless Veteran population accurately so that we can accurately anticipate, plan, resource, and execute interventions over the mid- and long-term. And so we are working with HUD and the Departments of Labor, Education, and Defense—as well as with state and local governments, non-profit, and volunteers on the ground—to develop a comprehensive, reliable National registry of homeless Veterans.
A lot's being done in this area, but clearly there's a lot more to do.
Then there's the frustrating claims backlog.
Secretary Shinseki has committed to 'breaking the back' of the backlog by 2015 by putting in place an automated system that processes all claims within 125 days, with a 98% accuracy rate. It's an ambitious goal.
Of VA's challenges, there is no question that it is the one requiring the most time to gain traction. The good news is that we have a host of promising options being piloted, and a number of them delivering very good results.
We've already designed, built, and tested an electronic benefit management system that has processed 5,000 claims with an average process time of 90 days. Pretty impressive.
We expect to see some payoff for our efforts next year, in 2012, when we begin to fully automate the claims process. We've had success in the past—with our Agent Orange claims, for example.
But even more telling, we can look to our record in implementing the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
After a rocky start, we fast-tracked the development of IT tools that, today, administer the education of over 518,000 Veterans and family members. When VA's other educational assistance programs are added into the mix, that number jumps to more than 840,000 Veteran and family member students in school supported by a fully automated VA system.
This fall, we'll expand the GI Bill program. Starting October 1st, it will also encompass vocational training—and other non-degree job opportunities—for Veterans who want to expand their credentials, but who aren't necessarily interested in spending four years in a college classroom.
We are confident we can soon scale our solid success in this area to our claims backlog.
I want to talk for a moment about Veterans employment initiatives.
There's no doubt about it—these are difficult economic times, especially for Veterans.
As of June, one million Veterans were unemployed, and the jobless rate for post-9/11 Veterans was 13.3 percent. In doing its part to turn this around, VA is heavily invested in promoting and supporting Veteran-owned and service-disabled, Veteran-owned businesses.
We recently conducted our National Veteran-owned Small Business Conference—over 4,300 attended. It offered Veteran-entrepreneurs an unprecedented opportunity to build capacity ... grow their businesses ... and connect directly with VA procurement decision-makers. Increasingly, small firms are VA's partners in providing the services and supplies that underpin our network of care.
Here's an example. In 2010, VA spent 38 cents of every reported procurement dollar with small business. There's value added to that partnership because, historically, Veterans tend to hire Veterans. So, by boosting the number of Veteran-owned small businesses, and by contributing to their expansion … we can potentially increase jobs for Veterans.
Another facet to Veterans' employment is the President's Veterans Employment Council, which Secretary Shinseki co-chairs. It's aggressively working to establish the federal government as the model employer of Veterans.
Today, more than one-in-four federal workers is a Veteran. Compared to the private sector, government hires 3 times the percentage of Veterans … 7 times the percentage of disabled Veterans … and, 10 times the percentage of severely-injured Veterans.
Incidentally, one-third of VA's own workforce is made up of Veterans—that's over 100,000 employees—and we intend to up that to 40 percent over the short term.
President Obama again recently demonstrated his unwavering support for—and concerns about—Veterans' employment opportunities by announcing several new initiatives.
First, a Returning Heroes Tax Credit for firms that hire unemployed Veterans, and an increase to the existing Wounded Warriors Tax Credit for firms hiring Veterans with service-connected disabilities who are considered long-term "unemployeds."
Second, a career-ready military. The President wants to ensure that every servicemember receives the pre-discharge training and counseling needed to successfully transition either into the civilian workforce, or into the classroom.
Third, an enhanced career development and job-search service package for our newest Veterans.
And last, a challenge to the private sector to hire or train 100,000 unemployed Veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013.
As we continue to transform VA to the benefit of Veterans, we are addressing cultural issues, particularly with regard to training and developing our employees to excel in accomplishing VA's mission of service. The fact is, as they go about doing their jobs, they shape how Veterans, the American people, and the Nation's decision-makers see our department—either positively or negatively.
We want Veterans to see and experience our department in the best light possible. And so, in our ongoing transformation, customer service is "Job One" for VA.
In general, customer service, government-wide, lags behind the private sector.
A recent American Customer Satisfaction Index found that overall customer satisfaction with the government is at a ten-year low; however, there are exceptions.
VA's National Cemetery Administration, for instance, has been repeatedly recognized as the country's top performer in customer satisfaction over the past decade.
And our Mail Order Pharmacy Program was recently recognized as a J.D. Power Customer Service Champion for 2011—one of only 40 in the country to earn that distinction.
We are working to scale those pockets of excellence across all our programs and services, and, department-wide, we are doing several things to make that happen:
In our effort to achieve long-term cultural change, we've developed five core values that underscore our obligations to them. More than just words, they cut to the core of VA's mandate of service. By that, I mean service marked by integrity … commitment … advocacy … respect … and excellence.
Taken together, the first letter of each of those words defines the culture we want to stand behind VA's ongoing transformation. For our 300,000 employees, the acronym "I CARE" comes down to this:
This is not to say that the large majority of VA employees are not already exhibiting these attributes. They are—and I say that from first-hand experience. Let me take a moment to explain my own motivation for serving at VA.
One of my principle reasons for leaving active duty in the Navy was a call I got from my father, a Veteran of World War II and Korea, when I was 28. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and needed help. I became his primary caregiver for the next 14 months. But the day came when our family could not meet his needs at home, and we admitted dad to a VA long-term care facility.
I remember the morning we got into the car and put the seatbelt on him and drove him to the Bedford, Massachusetts VA. And how we were welcomed. And how the team came to the curb and the car with a wheelchair to bring him into the Bedford Massachusetts facility.
He lived there for 11 years.
During that long good-bye, I came to appreciate something about VA that I would not otherwise have understood. That the care that was given to him was the combined product of the facility director, the RNs and nursing aides, and the frontline staff who fed him every day ... and ground his food up ... and put him on the winch to bathe him at night. When I come to work each morning, I remind myself that today someone else is going through that experience.
I'd like VA to be there for them, too. To be there for all Veterans, both today and tomorrow.
A few weeks from now, we as a Nation will reach a poignant milestone—the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For nearly a decade now, our Nation has been at war—the longest in American history. More than five million Americans are Veterans of this war. Three million joined after 9/11, knowing full well that they would be deploying to combat. Hundreds of thousands of them have deployed multiple times.
Their accomplishments are extraordinary:
The Veterans of the 9/11 Generation, with their families, have borne a heavy burden on behalf of the Nation. I can assure you, VA is there for them, and for you.
There is much more to be done as VA pursues its ambitious agenda of transformation.
We are committed to staying the course for positive change at VA. And above all, we are committed to America's Veterans —from our Greatest Generation to our latest generation.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.
Thank you all.