Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman
This hearing will come to order. Good morning everyone. Welcome to our hearing on the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs. As everyone knows, this budget is a couple of months late and comes after the House and Senate have both passed their respective budget resolutions. Unfortunately, this budget is too late to influence that process. However, we do have appropriations and authorization work coming up, so our oversight on this request is still very important.
Mr. Secretary, welcome. Committee Members have had less than 24 hours to review some of the details associated with the budget request in advance of this hearing. It is therefore likely that we’ll have numerous follow-up questions after we have had the chance to take a closer look at those details. With that said, I appreciate your attendance today and ask for your cooperation in getting timely responses back to the many questions we will undoubtedly have.
My initial reaction to the budget request is mixed. On the one hand, a proposed 4.3 percent increase in discretionary spending amidst stagnant or declining budget requests for other agencies, most of which have, unlike VA, absorbed sequester cuts, demonstrates that VA funding is clearly a priority in a tight fiscal climate. On the other hand, I’m concerned that we’re not seeing the results for all the money Congress has provided VA over the years.
For example, the budget proposes a 7.2 percent increase for expanding mental health services. I’m still waiting on information from VA showing that veterans with mental illness are getting healthier with the resources we’ve already provided. After all, that’s the ultimate outcome we’re after. Dr. Petzel, I asked that question of you at our mental health hearing two months ago and still we don’t have a response.
Then we get into the funding request for the Veterans Benefits Administration – a staggering 13.4 percent increase over the current year – and I’m really at a loss, because the claims processing performance just isn’t there. Despite already record high budgets, numerous investments in technology, record numbers of employees available to process claims, the situation is worse today than ever before.
Mr. Secretary, when last year’s budget was released VA issued a press release saying that with the funding provided (quote) “By 2013…no more than 40 percent of compensation and pension claims will be more than 125 days old….” Well, here we are, and we’re now at over 70 percent of claims being older than 125 days. The same is true for prior budget requests: lofty promises, excitement about new initiatives and technologies, but no results…we don’t even have a positive trend. VA has missed its own performance goals every single year.
I am tired of the excuses. I understand more claims are being filed and that they’re complex…but that’s been true for decades. And the workload created because of good decisions you made for Agent Orange veterans, Mr. Secretary, Congress provided resources for an IT solution that you requested to help with that effort. And by establishing presumptions for combat Post Traumatic Stress and Gulf War Illness, those claims – most of which would have been filed anyway –should have been easier to process, not cited as a contributing cause of perennial failure.
As for the technology improvements, I know many are pinning their hopes on the VBMS system, which we’ve already spent close to a half-a-billion dollars. We’ve already had reports of VBMS problems from VA’s Inspector General; we also have reports of the system crashing just this week causing all raters to temporarily transition back to the old computer system. But what’s worse, I’ve looked at the backlog numbers for the Regional Offices where VBMS went live by the end of 2012, and 14 of the 18 offices have a higher percentage of backlogged cases now than when VBMS came online. The other four have seen marginal improvement, but it’s nowhere close to where it needs to be.
I have been outspoken in my efforts to protect VA funding. We worked for over a year to ensure VA was exempt from sequestration. I’ve introduced a bill with the Ranking Member to advance fund all of VA’s budget to protect it from the effects of continuing resolutions or threatened government shutdowns. I’m proud of the efforts this Committee has made to protect VA’s resources. But the point of those efforts is to ensure improved benefits and services to America’s veterans. And, right now, I’m not seeing improvement in many key areas. I’m seeing the opposite.
Mr. Secretary, we need to see results. We need to see the outcomes the Administration promised with the resources Congress provided. The excuses must stop. I have supported you and your leadership up to this point. I believe the Committee and the Congress has provided you with everything you have asked. It’s time to deliver.
I yield to the Ranking Member….