Good morning, and welcome to today's Full Committee hearing Entitled, "Veterans Affairs in the 112th Congress: Reviewing VA's Performance and Accountability."
VA is to be commended for some of the areas we will examine today. For example, the number of homeless veterans is declining. VA reports that on any given night, the number of homeless veterans has fallen from 76,000 in 2009, to 67,500 in the latest report in 2011. We have to sustain that effort and address root causes of homelessness, but at present, I am pleased that the goal of ending homelessness by 2015 is within reach.
Also on the Positive side, the default rates on VA guaranteed loans continue to be lower than non-VA backed loans. Given the turmoil in the housing market, the success VA has had in keeping veterans in their homes is laudable.
Finally, I would like to congratulate VA on the aggressive manner in which it prepared for and promoted the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or "VRAP," part of our effort to reduce veteran unemployment. With the VOW Act's goal to retrain 99,000 veterans using the Montgomery GI Bill, as of Tuesday, VA had received 58,432 applications and approved 45,205.
So, VA, keep up the good work.
Despite these successes, progress isn't being made fast enough, or at all, in other key areas. On the important issue of mental health care, too many veterans either do not seek assistance or are unable to get VA care in a timely manner. As a result, access to mental health care is in crisis.
In April, the VA Inspector General released a report finding that more than half of the veterans who seek mental health care through VA wait fifty days -- that's five-zero days - on average - to receive an evaluation. These are men and women who have taken the brave and difficult step of seeking help - and they are waiting too long to receive it.
Interestingly, just days before the IG report was released, VA made a surprise announcement that it would be increasing mental health staff by 1,900. It is undoubtedly important to ensure proper staff are in place to meet the increasing demand for mental health care.
But, here's the problem: there are already almost 1,500 mental health professional vacancies in the VA system which means that 1,900 new hires equates to a net gain of 400. As of mid-July, VA had hired less than 900 employees as part of this effort. Follow-up requests by Committee staff for additional information have gone unanswered.
Meanwhile, data continues to show that eighteen veterans per day commit suicide, and five of those were receiving VA care at the time of their death.
We must do much better.
Another area of continued concern is the backlog of disability claims. Notwithstanding pledges by VA officials that we're about to "turn the corner," the backlog has steadily increased throughout the past two years. At the beginning of this Congress, the number of pending claims was 764, 476, with 39.4% pending for more than 125 days. As of this month, that total number of claims pending increased to 897,767, with 66.4% pending over 125 days.
The Department's refrain has been that overall production is over one million claims annually, and that the Agent Orange claims presented a challenge, but the simple fact remains that more claims continue to be filed than processed with no end in sight. Although this administration has promised that the backlog will be eliminated by 2015 and that claims will be processed with 98% accuracy by that time, quite frankly, I am worried about whether this goal remains realistic.
In addition, the committee has frequently been told that VBA's transformation plan is the answer to these problems. Although we certainly commend VA for realizing that comprehensive changes are required to bring VBA into the 21st century, the committee has yet to see an actual plan, in writing, with clear benchmarks and deadlines. We have yet to see this plan despite making three separate requests, both during hearings and in writing, which have all gone unanswered. I would like to continue working with the Department on bringing VA into the 21st century, and we will best be able to do so by being provided with a written copy of the transformation plan.
Finally, although VA has been more fortunate than other agencies in the resources it has received in this tight economic climate, the bureaucracy has helped itself to those resources rather than channeling them to direct services for veterans.
VA's Senior Executive Service (SES) bonus program continues to average nearly $4 million in annual payouts, with no apparent correlation between these bonuses and agency performance.
The committee is also addressing the issue of lavish conference expenditures. I and ranking member Filner sent a letter to VA over a month ago asking for detail of how over $100 million dollars was spent in 2011 on conferences, and we've received no response.
The government was on the verge of both a shutdown and default last year. Thus, the fact that VA cannot describe how over $100 million dollars was spent is outrageous. Despite promises of better fiscal stewardship from the administration, these are glaring examples of serious shortcomings that need to be fixed.
There is more I could have touched on in this statement, but I'll wait for questioning. We have a lot of ground to cover today, and we look forward to hearing from the VA panel on these important topics.