Good morning, I'm delighted to be here in this stunning location. Being here on the coast of Oregon, and with you, was definitely worth the trip!
Since 1946, you've been serving our Nation's heroes and making a difference in the lives of millions of Veterans and their families.
The more than $4 billion you spend collectively for our Veterans makes an incredible difference in the lives of our heroes and their families. Although each one of your states is unique, with its own traditions, programs, resources, and leadership, we are all united in our common goal to make a difference in the lives of Veterans.
Many of you serve on VA's Advisory Committees, providing us with invaluable insight into the needs of Veterans. Some of you participated in our selection process for our new Under Secretary for Benefits, General Allison Hickey. Others of you took part in our recent Veteran small business conference in New Orleans, helping Veterans develop their businesses and create much needed jobs.
Together we are partners with you. Much of what we do is made possible by the Veterans affairs departments at the state level. In fact, we could not serve Veterans without you.
From serving homeless Veterans to cemeteries to benefits to providing business and education opportunities for Veterans, you do it all. In fact in many areas, you are ahead of us with insight and ideas that comes from working on the front lines.
I bring warm greetings from Secretary Shinseki. He views you as his counterparts—his equal at the state level. Because of that, he felt the time had come to elevate the role of NASDVA. He has prepared a new vision for our partnership with you.
Put simply: We want to create greater value for our Veterans by working more closely with you.
Today I'd like to share with you some of the challenges we face and give you a status update on VA's top priorities. Then I'll outline how we propose formalizing our partnership with you through a Memorandum of Agreement.
But before we discuss our challenges, let's talk about some good news: VA's budget.
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.
Veterans' needs and expectations are changing.
Our budget allows us to focus on our top priorities for Veterans and fix some long-standing problems.
As some of you know, Secretary Shinseki has focused VA on three key behaviors and priorities: We will be people- centric, results-oriented, forward-looking.
These three key behaviors allow us to achieve the following three priorities:
How are we doing?
Here's where we have made progress—outreach to women Veterans, rural Veterans, and Veterans unaware of their unearned benefits. The result? In the last two years, 800,000 more Veterans are enrolled with us—a 10 percent increase.
We've hired 3,500 mental health professionals. All Veterans with acute needs can be seen and no Veteran waits more than 14 days for follow-up care. Ninety-three new CBOCs opened between January 2009 and September 2011, bringing nearly 200,000 Veterans within closer reach of VA care. We've increased investments in telehealth to reach Veterans wherever they live.
And in just two years, we put $2 billion in the hands of 85,000 Vietnam-era Veterans who applied for Agent Orange disability benefits.
Since 2008, VA has helped permanently house over 29,000 homeless Veterans, and another 30,000 have been assisted through the homeless call center. We intend to reduce the number of homeless Veterans to below 60,000 by June 2012.
We are fighting this on all fronts: primary medical and dental care, mental health, substance abuse treatment, education, case management, housing, and jobs counseling.
We are conducting justice outreach to support the creation of Veterans courts, which would refer Veterans, those facing minor charges, petty crimes, and repeated substance abuse offenses, to VA for treatment in lieu of incarceration. We have 153 sites for Veteran Justice Outreach nationwide.
And we're working with federal prisons and prisons in your states to afford Veterans being released from prison an opportunity to break the cycle of incarceration—homelessness—incarceration which plagues many of them. A lot is being done in this area, but clearly there's a lot more to do.
Secretary Shinseki has committed to ending the backlog in 2015 by putting in place a system that processes all claims within 125 days at a 98 percent accuracy level. This priority is taking longer to achieve momentum.
But we have a host of promising options being piloted today and expect them to begin paying off in 2012, as we begin fully automating the disability claims process.
Our success in automating the New GI Bill program, and new Agent Orange-related claims, gives us a measure of confidence that we will soon have the automation tools we need to begin beating the backlog in the short term.
Two years ago, some told us that some in VA had an attitude problem. So since last December, with input and recommendations from a variety of panels, work groups, and VA senior leaders, we have settled on five core values that underscore the moral obligations inherent in VA's mission: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, Excellence—"I Care."
Integrity—Because "I Care," I will act with high moral principle, adhere to the highest professional standards, and maintain the trust and confidence of all with whom I engage.
Commitment—Because "I Care," I will work diligently to serve Veterans and other beneficiaries, be driven by an earnest belief in VA's mission, and fulfill my individual and organizational responsibilities.
Advocacy—Because "I Care," I will be truly Veteran-centric by identifying, fully considering, and appropriately advancing the interests of Veterans and other beneficiaries.
Respect—Because "I Care," I will treat all those I serve and with whom I work with dignity, showing respect to earn respect.
Excellence—Because "I Care," I will strive for the highest quality and continuous improvement, be thoughtful and decisive in leadership, and be accountable for my actions, willing to admit mistakes, and rigorous in correcting them.
Secretary Shinseki and I hope you will clearly see our core values at work in VA's daily conduct of business—and, most importantly, through the personal example of our employees.
Our framework for tackling all these issues is our strategic plan. For those of you who are unfamiliar with our plan, I'd like to share it with you. We have four goals:
These strategic goals are the "what" of our plan; the following integrated objectives are the "how."
Strengthening our Partnership
As we strengthen our partnership with you, perhaps you might consider also adopting these goals and objectives for your organizations. Perhaps, you could also adopt the I CARE core values.
Obviously, local issues and budgets will impact what you can do, but the more aligned we are in our goals and tactics, the better we will be able to collectively serve Veterans. In the coming months, our Office of Intergovernmental Affairs will work with key leadership of NASDVA to develop a Memorandum of Agreement, or MOA, that defines roles and responsibility, establishes process for planning and execution, and identifies specific areas of opportunity and focus. The Secretary has agreed to sign it at your mid-winter conference.
This MOA will establish a new level of partnership between VA and NASDVA.
This agreement will affect each of our administrations: VHA, VBA, and NCA and will create a stronger, more concrete partnership between you and us.
The agreement will also be long term. Our goal is for it to last long into the future. It will be a living, working document with teeth, not just a piece of paper. It will only be as effective, however, as much as NASDVA leadership wants it to be.
We hope that you will seize this opportunity and make this partnership work at a whole new level. Your time is now: The stars are aligned in your favor! Our Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs is a former Secretary of State for Veterans Affairs—John Garcia from New Mexico. The Secretary brought one of your own into that job to help him strengthen VA's relationship with you. Our entire leadership team supports a strong working relationship with NASDVA. This is a great time for NASDVA and VA to get things done for Veterans.
Later you will hear from Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey; Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Steve Muro; Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs Joan Mooney; Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs John Garcia and others from VA. Take their measure; we are looking to work together.
The Secretary and I look forward to this new level of partnership. The winners in all of this will be our Nation's Veterans and their families. They couldn't be more deserving. Thank you so much for your time. Now I'd be happy to take some questions.