Good morning, Madam Chairman. Secretary Shinseki, welcome to you and your senior leadership team. And welcome to the representatives of the veterans service organizations.
We are here today to review the President's budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs for fiscal year 2013, which includes a 4.5% increase in discretionary funding. I continue to believe it is important that we provide adequate funding so that veterans of all generations will be able to receive the benefits and services they have earned and deserve without hassles or delays. But, we also need to analyze the budget request to ensure that we spend the taxpayer's money wisely and, more importantly, that the funding will actually lead to better outcomes for veterans, their families, and their survivors.
As we will discuss today, I have questions about whether that is the case for several areas of the budget. To start with, the budget for mental health care includes an advanced appropriations request for fiscal year 2014 of $6.4 billion. If adopted, it will represent a 4 percent increase over fiscal year 2013 and a 66 percent increase over the fiscal year 2008 level. But, at hearings last year, the Committee heard about the devastating struggles some veterans faced when trying to get the mental health treatment they needed from VA.
In fact, VA's survey of its mental health providers last year was pretty clear on the problems: 70 percent of survey respondents indicated that they did not have enough mental health staff to meet the current demand for care; 45 percent indicated that a lack of off-hour appointments is a barrier to care; and 51 percent said it takes 30 days or more for a veteran to be seen for a specialty appointment, such as for post-traumatic stress disorder. Clearly, this is an instance where increased funding has not translated into better services for veterans. Today, I hope we will get a better understanding of how VA plans to address these issues; how the requested funding would be used; and whether it may be time for VA to start thinking outside the box to find a solution to the barriers veterans face in accessing care.
Another area of concern is the backlog of disability claims. This budget request represents a 41 percent increase in staff since 2008. But, let's look at what happened during that time:
o The number of claims pending at the end of the year has more than doubled;
o The average number of days to complete a claim has increased by 26 percent;
o The quality of decisions has trended down and is now below 84%;
o According to one performance measure, there has been a 16 percent decline in the number of claims completed annually per employee;
o The appeals resolution time has increased from 645 days to 747 days; and,
o VA decided hundreds of thousands less claims than it received.
With statistics like these, it must be a priority to ensure that the initiatives VA is pursuing to get this situation under control will actually be effective, so that veterans, their families, and their survivors will receive timely, quality decisions when they seek benefits from VA
Another area of the budget I'd like to briefly mention is the legislative proposal to spend $1 billion over 5 years on a Veterans Jobs Corps program. While I believe it is important that we help our veterans find meaningful work, I am interested to learn how VA would suggest paying for this new program and about how it would be structured. So, I hope VA will be able to provide us with more details about the proposed program today.
Madam Chairman, the final item I want to highlight before I turn it back over to you is the continued increase in staff at the VA Central Office and at the Veterans Integrated Service Networks -- or VISN -- headquarters. For example, since fiscal year 2008, the staffing at VA Central Office has grown by close to 40 percent. And the Office of Human Resources and Administration has seen an 80 percent increase over the same period. Also, the staff at VISN headquarters has increased by 52 percent between the 2008 and 2011 fiscal years.
I think we need to ask serious questions about whether this increase in staffing directly benefits our nation's veterans; whether these employees are essential to delivering services to the veterans who use the VA system; and whether any of this funding could be put to better use.
The bottom line is that, particularly in this time of record debt and deficits, we need to ensure that we spend the limited amount of money we have wisely and make certain that veterans receive the benefits and services they have earned and deserve without delay.
Thank you, Madam Chairman.