Good afternoon, AMVETS! It's great to be with you today in Reno.
National Commander Cleve Geer—many thanks for that kind introduction. More importantly, Cleve, thank you for devoting yourself for so many years to the service of Veterans. Your leadership of AMVETS has been inspiring.
Let me also acknowledge some of your other national leaders:
I am especially honored to be speaking with you once again. When I was appointed in 2009, I noted that the average Secretary of Veterans Affairs served about 3.5 years. So, I said then that we had to move quickly to get as much done as possible in the time that we had. I needed help to take on the tough issues—(1) increasing Veterans access to VA's benefits and services, (2) eliminating the backlog in disability claims, and finally, (3) mobilizing a national initiative to end Veterans' homelessness in this country. I asked for your assistance, and you have given it to me—and you continue to do so today. I am grateful for that support.
In the four and a half years since January 2009, the leadership of the President, the support of the Congress, the advice and assistance of Veteran Service Organizations, like AMVETS, and a close working relationship with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and now Chuck Hagel, have enabled the following significant achievements:
The challenges of the past four and a half years have been daunting, but with your support, we have stayed clearly sighted on what's best for Veterans. More remains to be done, but this will always be true if you pursue continuous improvements over time—and we do.
Today, I'd like to address two issues that have been much in the news lately—the claims backlog and mental health. Some have criticized VA as being uncaring and unhelpful on both issues. This is not accurate, so let me address each of them. First, the backlog.
Let me be clear: No Veteran should have to wait to receive benefits that have been earned. The claims backlog is a decades-old problem. We committed to eliminating the backlog—not reducing, not better managing—eliminating the backlog. It is the reason I agreed to continue my service as Secretary. We've said all along it would take time to solve this correctly, and we are not going to leave this for another secretary and president to wrestle. The President wants this fixed, and we are on track to eliminate the backlog in 2015.
We started out four years ago with a plan, and we've stayed with it. First, we committed to taking care of some unfinished business—three new diseases attributed to Agent Orange exposure, primarily for Vietnam Veterans; nine new diseases associated with Gulf War Illness; and service-connected PTSD for combat Veterans from all our wars. Doing these "right things" for Veterans of previous wars was bound to increase the total number of disability claims in our system. That only stood to reason. At the same time, we predicted that the number of backlogged claims—those older than 125 days—would also increase. We testified to these projections three years ago in announcing our decision to grant service connection.
It was the right thing to do then and the right thing to do now. But, we also promised that we would, in the meantime, develop an automation system that would help attack, not just this growth in the backlog, but the entire idea of backlogged claims. And we have done so. As mentioned earlier, VBMS—Veterans Benefits Management System—is now fielded to all 56 of our Regional Offices, six months ahead of schedule. We projected, three years ago, that the backlog would increase, because of our decisions to increase access, and then it would begin to recede during 2013, this year.
And that is what is underway—the backlog is now declining. In March of this year, the backlog reached an all-time high of over 611,000 claims. Today, it is less than 507,000, a drop of over 100,000 claims in roughly 120 days. By the end of this year, we expect to have eliminated most claims over a year old.
Today, VA has the lowest number of claims under processing since August 2011. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in disability claims in 2015.
Now, Mental Health: More troops are surviving combat today, and their injuries are much more serious and complex, requiring prolonged hospitalizations—months and years of surgery, pain, recovery, uncertainty.
As these patients are released from military service, the seamlessness of a warm handoff from DoD to VA assures them the continuity of care they must have. This is why the Secretary of VA and the Secretary of Defense have worked these issues personally for four and a half years now. It is that important.
Now, many combat Veterans also carry with them the baggage of war—PTS, Post-Traumatic Stress—which can include anxiety, increased irritability, a sense of numbness, flashbacks, and feeling depressed. Most of us are able to work through PTS on our own, with the help of strong families and other support mechanisms. Some, not all, of these Veterans incur the "D"—disorder. PTSD requires professional care, and people generally get better with treatment.
However, during tough economic times, as we have experienced for the past five years, any prolonged unemployment exacerbates stress, prolonging the transition home for those with PTS, or the period of treatment for those with PTSD. We want to address these issues directly—and early, before complications begin a downward spiral towards job loss, depression, substance abuse, anger management issues, breakdowns in relationships, homelessness, and sometimes suicide.
The longest war in our history and higher survival rates have elevated concerns about the mental well-being of Servicemembers and Veterans, including the need for more sophisticated methods for identifying and treating their issues.
In the past, we often thought in terms of the "normal and healthy," on one hand, and the "mentally ill and unreliable," on the other, creating an obvious stigma against seeking help. If you were among the "normal and healthy," you didn't seek professional help for mental or emotional issues, because just seeking help moved you over into the "mentally ill and unreliable" category. And once there, you had little chance of going back.
Today, we know much better than to sort people into two mutually exclusive categories based on mental health. We know that mental wellness is an issue for many people, and that we all, at times, could use some professional counseling in dealing with life's difficulties. So at VA and DoD, we make it easier for Veterans and Servicemembers to get treatment without being ostracized for seeking help.
Bottom line:PTS, PTSD, TBI, and even depression—any of our Veterans carrying these issues are not damaged goods. What they need are jobs and education and quality healthcare—a shot at joining the middle class to help rebuild our economy.
Now, through the strong leadership of President Obama and the support of the congress, 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, the VA budget request reflects nearly $7 billion for mental health funding.
Mental health staff levels have also increased to keep pace with Veterans' needs. A year ago, the President issued an executive order directing the hiring of 1,600 additional mental health professionals. Since then, VA has exceeded that goal by hiring over 1,660 additional clinicians. We have also hired more than 490 peer support specialists towards our year-end goal of 800.
Last month, the President hosted a National Mental Health Summit at the White House to focus on the need to work together to demystify the issues surrounding mental health, especially overcoming the stigma associated with treatment. The White House followed up with a conference several weeks ago, focusing specifically on the mental health needs of Veterans and military families.
At VA, we know that when we identify and treat, people do get better. So to maximize our opportunities for identification and treatment, we are increasing our collaboration with local agencies and community partners. In the next two months, VA will host local mental health summits at each of our 151 VA Medical Centers, to broaden the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first was held last week in San Francisco; the rest will be held through August and September. Reno's is scheduled for September 13.
We are also partnering at the local level on 24 pilot projects with federally qualified community health centers in nine states. By partnering with local communities and other federal agencies we intend to get the most out of our resources. By collaborating, we also seek to reduce the stigma against accessing needed mental health care that is available.
One of our most successful efforts is our Veterans Crisis Line. DoD knows it as the Military Crisis Line—same number, same trained VA mental health professionals answering the phone, 24/7, at no cost to DoD—an example of our partnering to deliver optimal care to those in crisis. Since start-up in 2007, the Veterans Crisis Line has answered over 890,000 calls from Veterans in need. Most importantly, 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
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 108,000 people in on-line chats and another 10,000 by texting. Our crisis line webpage is averaging about 37,000 visits per month. If we have Veterans, who need help, engaging with us, we stand a better chance of helping them before the onset of crisis.
An example of partnering is a new mobile app, developed by VA and DoD, called the "PTSD Coach" to help Servicemembers and Veterans manage their readjustment challenges in real time and to access mental health assistance anonymously.
This is the 60th anniversary of the signing of the armistice in Korea. A short story from the Korean War: Jerry Murphy grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. After finishing high school in 1947, he went straight to college and graduated four years later. Then, as now, the Nation was at war, and so right after graduation, Jerry Murphy joined the Marine Corps. In a few short months, he was in Korea commanding a platoon in combat.
In February 1953, Murphy's platoon was held in reserve while the rest of his company attacked a heavily fortified hill. During the assault, most of the company's officers and NCOs were killed or wounded. The battered company was leaderless on the hilltop and taking more casualties.
From below, Murphy could see that something had gone wrong. He immediately seized the initiative and led his platoon up the hill. Arriving on the objective, Murphy found that the numbers of dead, dying, and wounded were significant. Rallying his fellow Marines in the midst of a raging battle, Murphy began evacuating the wounded, carrying many of them himself while organizing a withdrawal under fire. He manned a machine gun to cover the withdrawal, and then led a small group of volunteers back up the hill to recover more dead Marines. Wounded twice, he refused medical attention until he had accounted for every Marine and led his rescue party to safety.
Murphy was the last man to leave that bloody hilltop. For voluntarily risking his life to serve his fellow Marines, 2ndLt Jerry Murphy was awarded the Nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, but his record of service didn't end there.
Jerry Murphy went on to serve with VA for 23 years, as a counselor and director of Veteran Services in New Mexico. After retiring from VA, he chose again to serve Veterans for another eight years as a volunteer at the Albuquerque VA Medical Center, the one now named after him.
Before he died in 2007, Jerry Murphy insisted that he be buried, not in his dress blue uniform, but in his VA Volunteer's jacket. Jerry Murphy was first and last a selfless servant, dedicated to the well-being of others. It was his devotion to fellow Marines that led him to that hilltop in Korea. But he didn't stop serving others or being a hero, when he left that hilltop—he lived the rest of his life that way. The same shared sense of humanity that drove him up that hill, time and again, in search of fellow Marines, also motivated his years of service to Veterans.
VA's accomplishments will always be delivered by its good people, who work hard every day to do the right things for our nation's Veterans. We have this in common—VA and AMVETS—good people serving Veterans.
Congratulations on the expansion of your career center program. I mentioned earlier how unemployment weighs especially heavily on Veterans. Your 20 new career centers will help lift that burden off of many shoulders. I look forward to hearing more of your success in the coming year.
God bless AMVETS, and all who serve and have served our nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.