Good afternoon, everyone—Aloha. I am honored to be here with you. Thank you for inviting me.
General Danner, thank you for that kind introduction, and more importantly, Steve, thank you for your leadership as the Adjutant General of Missouri and as Board Chair of NGAUS. Let me also acknowledge:
Congratulations to NGAUS on 135 years of distinguished service to our Nation. Since 1878, you have served as the voice and the conscience of our citizen Soldiers—"Always ready, always there."
The Department of Veterans Affairs—VA—takes its mission from President Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, 4 March 1865, in which he called on all Americans to care for those who "shall have borne the battle." Today, that commitment extends to the men and women who have safeguarded this Nation in peace and in war—a commitment that, over the last 150 years, has established a system of hospitals which minister to those in need of healthcare, pensions and compensation for the disabled and those incapable of caring for themselves, and cemeteries to enshrine our fallen and to honor our Veterans. We still care for the child of a Civil War Veteran. The promises of President Abraham Lincoln are being delivered, 150 years later, by President Barrack Obama. And the same will be true 100 years from now—the promises of this president will be delivered by a future president, as yet unborn.
Today, VA is the largest integrated healthcare system in the country: 151 flagship medical centers, 827 community-based outpatient clinics; 300 Vet Centers offering readjustment counseling for combat Veterans; and 70 outreach and mobile clinics delivering healthcare to the most remote of our rural Veterans—over 1,700 points of healthcare nationwide.
But beyond healthcare:
Over 331,000 good people come to work at VA every day. One third of us—over 100,000—are Veterans, and the determination, initiative, and leadership we demonstrated in uniform continues to define our performance today. We have a single mission—Veterans and eligible family members—and we are always looking for ways to better serve them.
Thanks to the President's leadership over the past four-and-a-half years:
Those are some of our achievements—now, let me address three issues of importance to Veterans—the backlog in disability claims, mental health, and the healthcare law.
First, the backlog: No Veteran should have to wait to receive earned benefits. The disability claims backlog is decades old, and we committed to eliminating it—not reducing, not better managing—but eliminating the backlog. No claim over 125 days; 98 percent accuracy—we've said all along it would take time to solve this correctly.
Today, we are executing a plan we developed and resourced with the President's leadership and the support of congress. The first step in that plan was to take care of the "unfinished business" of previous wars: Three new diseases attributed to Agent Orange exposure, primarily for Vietnam Veterans. It had been nearly 40 years since Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam; it was time. Nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness—Desert Storm had been over for 19 years; it was time. Service-connected PTSD for combat Veterans from all wars—PTSD is as old as combat itself; it was time.
Taking care of "unfinished business" in this way meant that the number of disability claims was going to increase significantly and that a number of them would add to the claims backlog. We projected, three years ago, that after peaking sometime in 2013, the backlog would begin to recede.
These were the right things to do for Veterans then, and they remain the right things to do today. We promised to automate the entire disability claims process to drive these increases in claims downward.
As we projected in 2010, the backlog is in decline. On 25 March 2013, it peaked at a little over 611,000 claims. Yesterday, the backlog fell to below 445,000 claims, representing a drop of over 166,000 claims in less than 180 days. We are sighted on taking down the backlog, with two years left to finish the job. Again, no Veteran should have to wait to receive the benefits they have earned, and we are going to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
Second, mental health: More troops are surviving combat today, and after 12 years of combat, their injuries are serious and their issues complex. Many combat Veterans carry with them the baggage of war—PTS, post-traumatic stress—which can include anxiety, increased irritability, a sense of numbness, flashbacks, and depression. Most of us are able to work through PTS on our own, with the help of strong families and other support mechanisms. Some Veterans incur the "d"—as in PTSD—disorder. Unlike PTS, which most Veterans can transition out of on their own, PTSD requires professional help.
At VA, we know that when we identify and treat, people get better. PTS, PTSD, TBI, depression—all are treatable. We must engage Veterans who are dealing with these issues. They are not damaged goods. They are fully capable of living productive lives. What Veterans of all generations need are quality healthcare, education, and jobs—not being ostracized, shunned, or ignored.
At VA, we are making it easier for Veterans and Servicemembers to get treatment when they have the courage to seek help. Mental health staff levels have increased to keep pace with Veterans' needs. A year ago, the President directed the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. VA has exceeded that goal and is now hiring 800 peer support specialists, before the end of this year, to augment the work of these clinicians.
Through the strong leadership of the President, we continue to improve access to mental health services. The President's budget requests between 2009 and 2014 increased VA mental health funding by nearly 57 percent. For FY 2014, alone, the President requested nearly $7 billion for VA mental health programs.
One of our most successful efforts is our Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255. DoD knows it as the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, 24/7, to deliver optimal care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered nearly 950,000 calls from those needing assistance—Veterans, their families, and friends. Thirty thousand of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because VA clinicians were anticipating their calls.
Chatting and texting appeal to those who are comfortable with technology. So in 2009 we added an on-line chat service, and in 2011, a texting service. Since then, we've engaged almost 127,000 people in on-line chats and by texting.
VA and DoD have also developed a new mobile phone app called the "PTSD Coach" to help Servicemembers and Veterans manage their readjustment challenges in real-time and to access mental health assistance anonymously.
Let me close with a bit of history that I know firsthand, some accolades for your Soldiers and Airmen, and a couple of requests.
In 1999, Army Guard divisions and brigades had no missions—and some outside the Guard seriously questioned the relevance of many of your formations. We responded to those criticisms with a commitment to readiness. Roger Schultz, then the Director of the Army Guard, and I worked every one of these issues together, with the Adjutants General and the Guard Bureau leadership. But we led the process, believing that missioning you, equipping you, and giving you tough standards to make you relevant would justify our arguments for retaining necessary structure—not everything, but what we could justify that the Nation needed. In every case, you responded to the changes we agreed to and prepared for the unknown. You answered every call. You responded to every task. You accomplished every assigned mission.
History will reflect very favorably on the Guard response to the 9/11 attacks 12 years ago, and every call to action since. This is clearly in keeping with the finest traditions of citizen- Soldiers and the honored history of the Continental militia, going back nearly four centuries.
Now, we have another no-fail mission—we must take care of every Soldier and Airman who volunteered in our time of need. I cannot do this without your help. The distributed nature of Guard unit stationing across the country makes it difficult to reach every eligible Veteran, but it doesn't release us from our obligation. We must find the members of your units who need treatment and assistance—every Guard Veteran you have contact with, or who served in your formations. We must prevent any of them from slipping through the cracks.
I ask for your help in communicating VA's interest in supporting every eligible Veteran who has earned the benefits and care we provide. Who are they? Where are they? Facilitate our communications with them. VA exists for one reason—to support them in their time of need.
I'm confident that the critical issues National Guard leaders are currently working will, in the end, be resolved—by many of those present in this room today, working with the Air Force and Army leadership. I thank you for your sacrifice. I congratulate you for your long and proud legacy of defending this great Nation—"Always ready, always there." Thank you for returning Roger Schultz's and my investment in you 14 years ago. It's been my honor to be with you today.
God bless all who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.