Good morning, Chairman Miller, Chairman Murray, and Ranking Member Filner. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for convening this joint hearing to listen to the legislative priorities of these organizations that serve our nation's servicemembers, veterans, survivors, and dependents.
I would also like to extend a warm welcome to all of our witnesses and the members of your organizations who have traveled here today. Your insight is critical to ensure we are providing our veterans and their loved ones with care and services they need and deserve.
As we look ahead, it is important that we continue to focus on meeting the critical needs of veterans and their families and, at the same time, recognize the fiscal challenges our nation is facing. In the coming months and years, we will be relying on organizations like yours to provide us with candid assessments of veterans' programs, to ensure taxpayer money is being spent efficiently and effectively.
The testimony you will provide today will be valuable as the Committees continue to analyze VA's fiscal year 2013 budget request. This year, VA requested more than a 4% increase in discretionary spending over fiscal year 2012. As you know, Congress has made VA a priority over the years by providing budget increases, including a request for a 66% increase in mental health funding over fiscal year 2008 levels. But, for many veterans, this has not led to better outcomes, particularly those facing difficulty accessing timely mental health care and a growing backlog of disability claims.
I am concerned with the increase in staffing at the VA Central Office and the headquarters of the Veterans Integrated Service Networks -- or VISNs. For example, since fiscal year 2008, the staffing at VA Central Office has grown by close to 40 percent. Similarly, the staff at VISN headquarters has increased by 52 percent between the 2008 and 2011 fiscal years.
We need to ask serious questions about whether this increase in staffing directly benefits our nation's veterans; and whether any of this funding could be put to better use. In this time of record debt and deficits, we need to ensure that VA focus its resources in providing patient care and benefits to veterans and not adding more bureaucracy at headquarters.
In addition, in recent years, Congress has provided funding to allow VA to hire thousands of additional claims processors and to develop new technologies. But, veterans still face large backlogs, long delays, and frequent errors when trying to access disability benefits.
In fact, VA decided hundreds of thousands less claims than it received over the past three years and some VA regional offices are making errors in more than 25% of their decisions. So, we must ensure that VA's plan for getting this situation under control is realistic and will actually result in veterans receiving timely, quality decisions when they seek benefits from VA.
As we continue to work on these and other important issues, I remain committed to working with your organizations and my colleagues in the Senate and House to improve the lives of veterans, their families, and their survivors.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman. I yield back.