Good evening! It's great to be with you here in Rogers.
Commander McKenty, thank you for that kind introduction and for your leadership of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. Let me also acknowledge:
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 gave 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 the Military Order of the Purple Heart, and a close, personal, working relationship with Secretaries of Defense Bob Gates, 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 kept our sights on what was best for Veterans. Today, I'd like to address three issues that have been much in the news lately—the claims backlog, mental health, and the healthcare law. On the first two issues—backlog and mental health—some have criticized VA as being uncaring and unhelpful. This is not accurate, so let me address both of them. On the healthcare law, it is crucial for Veterans to understand how it applies to them, individually, so they can exercise choice.
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 claims backlog—not reducing, not better managing—but eliminating it. 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 eliminate the entire backlog in disability claims. And we have done that. 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 just over 502,000, a drop of over 109,000 claims in roughly 140 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 being processed since March of 2011. Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to our 2015 target of eliminating the backlog.
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, and uncertainty.
As these patients depart military service, 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 seamlessness issues between our two departments, 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, but some of these Veterans incur the "D"—disorder. PTSD requires professional care, and people do 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 transitions for those with PTS, or 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 these higher survival rates, have sensitized us all to the mental well-being of Servicemembers and Veterans, including the need for better tools for identifying and treating their issues.
In the past, we often thought in terms of "normal and healthy," on one hand, and "mentally ill and unreliable," on the other. Such thinking created 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 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 Veteran dealing with these issues is not damaged goods. What is needed are jobs and education and quality healthcare—a shot at joining the middle class to help rebuild our economy. 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 requests nearly $7 billion [$6.974] for mental health.
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 clinicians. We have also hired more than 490 peer support specialists towards our year-end goal of 800.
In June, 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 get better. So, to increase "identification and treatment," we are collaborating with local agencies and community partners. In the next two months, VA will host 151 local mental health summits at each of our VA medical centers, broadening the dialogue between clinicians and stakeholders. The first was held last month in San Francisco. Two summits will be held here in Arkansas—in Fayetteville on September 4th and in Little Rock on September 12th.
We are also partnering at the local level on 24 pilot projects with federally-qualified community health centers in nine states to get the most out of our resources. By collaborating, we also seek to reduce the stigma against using available mental healthcare which we offer.
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 Veterans who need help are engaging with us, we stand a good chance of averting crisis.
Finally, let me touch on the healthcare law that's about to go into effect. Veterans have put their lives on the line for this country, and deserve to know and understand what this law means and what choices you have:
As I mentioned earlier, last month was 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 NCO's were killed or wounded. The battered company was leaderless on the hilltop and taking more casualties.
Murphy 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, 2Lt 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 asked 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 our good people, who work hard, every day, to do the right things for our Nation's Veterans. We have this in common—VA and the Military Order of the Purple Heart—good people serving Veterans.
God bless those who serve and have served our Nation in uniform. And may God continue to bless this great country of ours.