Thank you to all who have joined us. I am pleased to be joined by my colleagues from both sides of the Capitol, but I regret that changes to the Congressional calendar have prevented many Members from attending today. However, we are live streaming this hearing on our website at Veterans.House.Gov so that your members and our Members can watch online. We will also have the hearing available on our website for future reference, so that the public can always come back and view these proceedings.
The American Legion's annual legislative presentation before these committees helps us shape policies and address issues impacting current and former service members around the country. We value your input, and today provides us another opportunity to discuss solutions to problems and ensure the effectiveness of programs that work well for veterans.
With a membership of nearly 2.4 million, the American Legion represents veterans from many different conflicts and all regions of the nation and the world. The diversity of your membership is reflected in the numerous activities in which the Legion engages, not just in its tireless work here in Washington. Whether through working with families and youth organizations, such as the Boy Scouts, mentoring a future service member, aiding a veteran with a claim, or providing funeral honors for a veteran who has been called home, the Legion's positive impact is felt every day.
I want to extend a warm welcome this morning to the American Legion's 2012-2013 National Commander, James E. Koutz. We look forward to hearing your testimony, and thank you for sharing your legislative agenda with our committees and Congress.
I also want to welcome every member of the American Legion and its auxiliary here today, including a special welcome to the national president of the Auxiliary, Ms. Peggy Thomas, of Richmond, Virginia. Thank you, Ms. Thomas, for the fine work the Auxiliary does. We must all remember that family members also sacrifice in support of our warriors. Thanks to each of you for your service and for traveling from across the country to be with us today.
Like many of you, I am proud to call the Sunshine State home, and would ask those who have made the trip from Florida to please stand or wave and be recognized.
Before we begin, I would just like to say that this week hasn't been VA's finest. With the release of the report from the Office of the Inspector General on VA conference expenses, it is apparent we have a leadership void at VA. Without strong leadership at VA, I am concerned that some of the best ideas we put forth will never realize their full potential. VA is facing major obstacles -- a backlog that continues to grow exponentially, a mental health care crisis, bureaucracy, and now this latest report that VA employees went on a spending spree with veterans healthcare funding. Not only did senior leadership fail to ensure effective planning for this large event, they also failed to ensure sound stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
Disappointed is a polite word to describe my thoughts about this. I am disappointed that it has taken an OIG investigation to bring this lavish spending to light. I am disappointed that VA failed to take corrective action earlier. And I am disappointed that, in light of these findings, we are hearing the same thing we always hear from VA -- "we will change, we have put safeguards in place, we don't condone this behavior." We've heard this tune before, but rarely do we see results or any substantive change. VA leadership must always hold itself accountable for providing veterans the best care and services possible and never gamble with our veterans, especially for some employees to have fun at a conference. That is a gamble VA leaders should never have taken.
In addition to ensuring strong, consistent oversight and leadership at VA, another ongoing challenge we strive to address is service members' transition, not just from DOD to VA but also to civilian life, including the workplace. Veterans' unemployment is of great concern to these Committees, and we have made great bipartisan strides in improving that situation during the 112th Congress.
I am glad that VA approved the maximum 45,000 applications for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program for Fiscal Year 2012, an important step toward helping veterans get back into the workforce. The opportunity for 54,000 more veterans to participate in this new fiscal year will sustain that momentum. The American Legion has been a valuable partner in VRAP's success, and outreach through your website and mailings can further the success.
As we continue working toward job growth in the private sector for veterans, there are other issues which also command our attention.
It was over a year ago that I communicated to this Administration that veterans funding should not be affected by sequestration. After receiving conflicting and vague responses during that time, we finally have a long-overdue answer that veterans funding will not be touched.
To the members of these Committees, and I'm sure to many Legionnaires, it is puzzling why such a common-sense answer took so long, but it is also the right answer and one I am glad to finally have.
As your written testimony discerns, significant challenges remain with disability claims processing. The backlog of claims continues to grow, despite input, including the Legion's, on ways to improve accuracy within the process without compromising veterans' benefits.
We all know of the number of service members returning home and what effect that will have on VA's claims backlog. In order for the backlog to be eliminated, it first must decrease. However, VA's own statistics show that the backlog has doubled in the past several years -- a significant increase, not decrease. Although VA continues to reiterate its goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015 and to process claims with 98% accuracy, the agency fails to provide clear benchmarks and timelines as to how the backlog will decrease, let alone be completely eliminated.
The assistance your veterans service officers provide in filing claims is invaluable in guiding service members through a difficult and time-consuming process. Helping veterans with over one-hundred fifty thousand claims a year is no small feat, and the expertise provided helps each veteran receive care and benefits in a timely fashion. Still, we both know that VA must do its own part, and I look forward to continuing to work with your organization and my colleagues in the House and Senate to get VA moving in the right direction -- more claims processed, in less time, with a higher accuracy rate.
VA also is not treating veterans with the invisible wounds of war quickly enough. More than half of veterans seeking mental health care -- and these are VA's statistics -- wait an average of 50 days for an initial evaluation. Not treatment, an evaluation. That statistic is a national shame. While VA may talk about processes and numbers and percentages, it must remember that its purpose is serving people, veterans who put themselves in harm's way to protect freedom for those of us back home. Veterans should be able to receive help when they seek it, not the next day, week, or month. Any delay in providing this treatment is unconscionable. We must look at ways to expand VA's mental health care capacity. This is a matter of life and death. So, I am open to ideas on how we can save 18 veterans a day, and I look forward to having a productive discussion on this issue today.
The mandatory Transition Assistance Program participation enacted under the bipartisan VOW to Hire Heroes Act is another way we can reach out to individual service members at a personal level. So, too, is the outreach that the American Legion provides, both through its national efforts here in Washington as well as through the nearly fourteen thousand American Legion posts throughout the world.
You have my assurance that our committees will continue to work together with you to provide and improve services for our veterans. We have seen some major accomplishments together, but we all know there is much more to be done, and I look forward to even greater achievements for our veterans.
Commander, thank you- not just for being here today but for everything you do and your organization does. The American Legion makes a positive difference every day in the lives of many, and I know it will continue to do so for many years to come.