Yesterday AMVETS and its partner organizations on the Independent Budget testified before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the proposed FY2011 VA budget. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki also appeared before the committee to answer questions on the Administration's budget proposal, which was released on Monday. To view video from yesterday's hearing, Click Here.
In his testimony, Shinseki said his goals for VA were to eliminate the claims backlog, improve access, and end homelessness. To read Shinseki's prepared remarks, Click Here.
However, with new presumptions for Agent Orange conditions and a continued influx of complex Iraq and Afghanistan-related benefits claims, VA admitted that the lag time for VA claims may worsen in the short term. VA's goal is to reduce the wait time to 125 days by 2012, completely eliminating the backlog by 2015.
When asked about why claims were more complex, Shinseki deferred to Acting Undersecretary of Benefits Michael Walcoff who explained that successful outreach efforts have made veterans more keenly aware of their entitlements.
"We used to see only two or three issues on each claim, now we're seeing more than four," said Walcoff. "We've had better outreach to veterans and the service organizations are doing a good job of informing veterans--which are all good things--but it adds to the complexity of the work."
In an effort to improve the backlog, VA has asked for an additional 4,000 full time claims processors. However, AMVETS and the nation's other leading VSOs believe that simply more staff will not be enough to solve the problem. AMVETS National Legislative Director Ray Kelley said many options remain on the table to help streamline an antiquated paper-based process.
AMVETS has also proposed shifting VA evaluation criteria to focus on quality of output, rather than quantity, which could significantly reduce the number of appeals in the system.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-Calif.) discussed a proposal for VA similar to an IRS auditing system to help deliver benefits in a more timely manner--a proposal that has raised significant concerns for AMVETS and other leading VSOs.
DAV Assistant National Legislative Director John Wilson briefly discussed the backlog during his testimony on behalf of the IB partners.
This is the 24th year that AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and VFW have partnered to author the IB, which Filner called his Bible when considering how to properly fund VA each fiscal year.
The FY2011 IB is the first to include advance appropriations for the following fiscal year since President Barack Obama signed the Veterans Health Care Budget Reform and Transparency Act of 2009 into law last October. The IB partners called on Congress to provide $54.2 billion as a baseline for VA health care in FY2012.
Kelley testified on the VA's National Cemetery Administration and its funding needs on behalf of the IB, applauding NCA for its efficiency. NCA recently expanded its eligibility threshold, affording more veterans with the opportunity to be buried in national cemeteries. To read Kelley's prepared remarks, Click Here.
American Veteran will continue to follow the VA budget process for FY2011. Check back regularly for updates.
(Photos: Top: VA Secretary Shinseki discusses the proposed VA budget before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. Bottom: Kelley testifies on the Independent Budget alongside VFW's Eric Hillman, DAV's John Wilson, and PVA's Carl Blake. Photos by Ryan Gallucci.)