America's obligation to veterans. (From The National Commander).
On behalf of the more than one million members of the Disabled American Veterans and its Auxiliary, it is an honor and a privilege to appear before this joint meeting of the Senate and House Veterans' Affairs Committees.
Mr. Chairman, before I discuss the important issues facing disabled veterans, let me express the DAV's sincere appreciation for the support you have given to important veterans issues.
Today, there are more than 2.3 million American veterans who were disabled as a result of their military service--from the Mexican Border War to the men and women maimed in the September 11 terrorist attacks, to those injured in the war on terrorism.
I personally have had the pleasure of meeting some of those injured in Afghanistan, and my staff is continually meeting others, often working with them to obtain their veterans benefits.
Mr. Chairman, it is our shared obligation to make sure that all disabled veterans receive the health care, disability compensation, and other benefits they are entitled to.
Unfortunately, the unacceptably long delays in delivering benefits and health care continue to cause undue hardships for disabled veterans and their families.
Mr. Chairman, we must put an end to this deplorable situation.
The question remains, Mr. Chairman, do Congress and the Administration have the will to provide the vital resources and to make the necessary changes in the system to get the job done?
For the sake of America's disabled veterans, I sincerely hope so.
Speaking of resources, the increase Congress provided for veterans programs last year was very much appreciated. Unfortunately, though, it was not enough to make up for the years of neglect and chronic budget shortfalls that have severely hampered the VA's ability to meet the needs of our nation's sick and disabled veterans.
Mr. Chairman, I believe a recent comment by your colleague, Congressman Mica, will give you some idea of what veterans are up against.
When Congressman Mica visited the Afghan detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, last month, he remarked that those enemies of our nation were "being afforded better medical care than some of our veterans."
Now, I ask you, is it this nation's policy to provide terrorists with better access to health care than we provide our own veterans?
My God, I hope not.
This year, the Administration's budget calls for a $1.3 billion increase in VA health care. But what President Bush calls "an historic increase" is no such thing when you consider that his budget request attempts to shift more of the cost of care onto veterans.
Without adequate resources, the VA cannot meet the increasing demands for medical care. We have recommended in The Independent Budget a $24.5 billion appropriation for veterans health care alone. That is $3.1 billion above the fiscal year 2002 level and $1.8 billion more than the President has requested.
Congress and the Administration have an obligation to provide adequate appropriations to meet those needs. The VA must not be forced to rely on subsidies from patients or their health insurance to cover the cost of caring for veterans. Third-party collections are not a substitute for appropriations.
If the Administration and the Congress truly want to honor veterans, we strongly urge you to make health care an entitlement.
Another major area of concern is the claims adjudication system, which is widely recognized as one of the most serious and persisting problems affecting VA and veterans.
To reduce high error rates, a still-growing case backlog, and long delays in veterans' compensation and pension claims will require additional staffing, comprehensive training, and greater oversight and accountability within the Veterans Benefits Administration.
To clear up the large claims backlog, we recommend adding 350 employees to process and decide claims. This infusion of additional personnel is absolutely necessary to improve the quality and timeliness of rating decisions and to fulfill the VA's duty to assist veterans in obtaining evidence to support their claims.
Improvements in technology are also needed to allow the VA to electronically transfer veterans' medical records from their source to the claims processing database.
This will help improve case management and speed claims processing.
Mr. Chairman, we owe our very freedom to America's veterans. We must acknowledge the sacrifices they have made and continue to honor our commitment to them.
Veterans answered the country's call to service, and now Congress and the Administration must answer back by ensuring a secure and stable future for top-quality health care and timely delivery of disability compensation and other benefits.
This is a national obligation that must be kept.
In fulfilling our mission of service to America's disabled veterans and their families, the DAV employs a corps of highly trained professional National Service Officers throughout the country. Last year these truly dedicated men and women represented almost a quarter of a million veterans and their families in their claims for VA benefits.
And I am proud to report that the DAV has added two new service programs to expand our services to veterans.
The DAV Transition Service Program provides outreach to members of the Armed Forces at the time of their separation from active service.
Our Mobile Service Offices are bringing the DAV's world-class service to veterans in the communities where they live.
Both of these outreach programs have met with tremendous success since they were launched last year and continue to meet and exceed our expectations.
In addition to those essential services, last year more than 10,000 DAV and Auxiliary volunteers provided more than 2.5 million hours of voluntary service to hospitalized veterans.
The DAV's nationwide Transportation Network program continues to show tremendous growth as an indispensable resource for veterans. Across the nation, nearly 7,000 volunteer drivers logged nearly 27 million miles last year, transporting some 781,000 veterans to and from VA medical facilities.
So, you can see that the DAV devotes its resources to providing needed services to our disabled veterans.
However, much more still remains to be done.
Because of this continuing need, this year we have launched a nationwide effort to replenish the ranks of our volunteer force, especially with younger volunteers who will be there for sick and disabled veterans in the future.
The goal of the National Commander's Volunteer Recruitment Initiative is to increase the DAV volunteer force by 10 percent and to boost the number of volunteer hours donated by 10 percent. And I have asked the Auxiliary to increase its volunteer force by 10 percent as well.
And I promise you that, as the DAV Volunteer motto says: We make it happen. And we will make it happen for today's veterans ... and for tomorrow's.
Once again, Mr. Chairman, America's best and finest men and women are now in harm's way to assure our rights and to guarantee our liberty and freedom from fear. Today's soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are tomorrow's veterans.
In the same way that providing for a common defense is a national obligation, we look to the Congress to support a Department of Veterans Affairs that is able to meet disabled veterans' needs today, and one that is prepared for veterans in the future.
And with the war against terrorism, there have been, and undoubtedly will be more casualties among U.S. forces. Therefore this nation must be prepared to expend considerable resources in providing health care, disability compensation, and other vital services to those men and women who become disabled as a result of their service and sacrifice.
As a nation, we owe our veterans a great debt of gratitude. Yet, the only thing veterans have ever asked in return is that their government honors its commitment to help them and their families in their hour of need.
We must never forget the price that has been paid for our freedom. We must honor and care for those who continue to bear the cost of liberty and security every day of their lives.