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VA Accomplishments Under the Administration of President Bush.

WASHINGTON, July 27 /PRNewswire/ --

The Department of Veterans Affairs has made substantial progress in supporting President Bush's and Secretary Anthony J. Principi's priority goals to:

* Improve the quality and timeliness of veterans' claims processing;

* Restructure the veterans health care system to improve access; and

* Expand veterans' access to burial options.

Veterans Claims

To achieve the Administration's commitment on claims processing, more than 1,000 full-time employees -- all dedicated to helping veterans directly or to deciding their claims -- were added to the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) in the first 180 days of the Bush Administration, marking the largest increase in VBA's workforce since the Vietnam War.

Moreover, the President's FY 2002 budget provides a 13-percent increase for VBA that will help address one of the Administration's top priorities for VA -- improving the timeliness and accuracy of claims processing. That funding commitment will add more than 860 employees to VA's compensation and pension program to assist with new workload and improve processing accuracy.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in January, Principi said, "President- elect Bush promised a top-to-bottom examination of VA benefits processing. If I am confirmed, I will commission a broad-based and inclusive task force to conduct that examination."

On April 16, Principi signed the charter establishing the VA Claims Processing Task Force. The task force, representing the private sector, veterans service organizations and government, will examine a wide range of issues affecting the speedy processing of claims, from medical examinations and information technology to efforts to shrink the backlog and increase the accuracy of decisions. The panel's final report to the secretary is due in approximately 120 days from the signing of the charter.

Veterans Health Care

The VA medical care budget proposed by the Administration provides a $1 billion increase to support veterans' health care. That budget includes funds to begin implementing the VA Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) program recommendations that will improve the quality and accessibility of health care services for veterans. In the initial phase of CARES, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has recommended options for veterans' health care in Chicago, Wisconsin and upper Michigan that conservatively would achieve efficiencies of $720 million over 20 years that could be used to provide better access and enhanced patient care -- including long-term care and special care for rehabilitation of blind and spinal cord injured -- for veterans in the region.

As part of its quality initiative, VHA began a system-wide self-assessment of its management processes using the Malcolm Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence.

Principi announced the establishment of six new VA Parkinson's Disease Research, Education and Clinical Care Centers in February. Centers are being established in Houston, Philadelphia, Portland (Ore.), Richmond, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

VHA has taken major steps to significantly improve access to health care for veterans:

* Recently announced it is opening 25 new community-based outpatient

clinics (CBOCs) in 17 states: Alaska (1), Arizona (5), California

(2), Colorado (1), Connecticut (1), Massachusetts (1), Michigan (1),

New Hampshire (1), New Mexico (1), New York (1), Oregon (2),

Pennsylvania (2), Utah (1), Virginia (1), Washington (1), Wisconsin

(1), and West Virginia (2).

* Developed and published new regulations that provide for some

uninsured veterans to receive emergency health care in non-VA


To qualify, veterans must be enrolled in VA health care; have been

seen by a VA health care professional within 24 months; and carry no

other form of health insurance, including Medicare or Medicaid.

Additionally, it must be obvious that a delay in medical treatment

would be hazardous to the veteran's health, and no VA or other federal

facility is available. When these conditions are met, the veteran

pays nothing. VA pays 70 percent of the Medicare rate and VA payment

is considered payment in full. VA will pay for private-sector

emergency care only until the veteran can be safely transported to a

VA facility. The emergency care benefit has been in effect since May

29, 2000. However, VA did not have the legal authority to pay private

emergency rooms or reimburse veterans for non-VA emergency care until

recently. VA soon will begin processing past claims. Hospitals and

veterans should see their reimbursement checks in the near future.

* Surveyed veterans who had received VA health care, who indicated

that waiting time for appointments is now less than 20 minutes for

more than 85 percent of outpatients.

VHA has addressed the critical problem of providing outpatient medications and effectively managing their burgeoning costs by publishing new regulations in the Federal Register. Copayments would be increased for the first time in 10 years from $2 to $7, which is still significantly less than copayments required by most private-sector health care providers. A cap of $840 a year would limit out-of-pocket expenses for most veterans, with veterans in Priority Group 7 being the major exception. Copayments would not be required for veterans with service-connected disabilities or low income.

In 1990, VA spent $715 million for pharmaceuticals. While copayments remained the same during the next 10 years, the cost for medicines rose to $2.1 billion in 2000. Under the new regulation, copayments could increase with inflation, along with caps, based on the Prescription Drug portion of the Consumer Price Index. VA collected $101 million in fiscal year 2000 from medication copays. It is anticipated that the same number of veterans will continue to use VA at the new copayment rate, generating an increase in payments of $250 million annually. Every dollar collected will be returned to the VA facility where the veteran received medical care.

VHA and the Department of Defense have co-signed a memorandum of understanding to identify and implement opportunities for more resource sharing and joint facility utilization, beginning with a partnership between the North Chicago VA Medical Center and the Great Lakes Naval Hospital.

Veterans Burial Options

Principi has continued and expanded initiatives to increase accessibility of burial options for an aging veterans population. The Administration's FY 2002 budget proposal funds land acquisitions for new national cemeteries in the Detroit, Pittsburgh and Sacramento areas; development of a new cemetery near Atlanta; design of a new cemetery in southern Florida; and columbaria expansion and improvements at the Massachusetts National Cemetery in Bourne and the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Wash.

On April 1, Principi was the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony for the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona expansion project. This $13 million major construction project significantly expanded burial space and improved the overall infrastructure of the cemetery. The cemetery is expected to meet the needs of Phoenix-area veterans and their eligible family members through the year 2030.

On April 3, Principi accepted the deed for 775 acres of land donated by the estate of Scott Hudgens, a prominent World War II veteran and Atlanta businessman, for development of a national cemetery to serve an Atlanta-area population of 400,000 veterans. Funds for construction of that cemetery are included in the President's budget.

In May and June, VA awarded contracts totaling $4.8 million to make improvements to a total of 171,000 gravesites at the Willamette (Ore.), Fort Sam Houston (Texas), Long Island (N.Y.) and Golden Gate (Calif.) national cemeteries. These awards support VA's National Shrine Commitment. This commitment requires that all gravesites be level (with no sunken graves), with healthy turf and with headstones and markers that are properly set, aligned and cleaned.

On July 2, Principi announced that Fort Sill National Cemetery would become the 120th VA national cemetery. A three-acre burial section under development will allow burials to begin this fall. The 391-acre site, transferred to VA by the Department of Army in 1998, will serve approximately 166,000 veterans in southwestern Oklahoma.

Five new state veterans cemeteries that received VA grant funds have recently begun providing services to veterans: the Arkansas Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock; the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam; the Eastern Montana State Veterans Cemetery in Miles City; the Maine Veterans Memorial near Augusta; and the Northern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Beaver Brook. Construction is underway on the State Veterans Cemetery in Milledgeville, Ga., which is scheduled to open this fall. The VA State Cemetery Grant Program, a 100-percent grant program established to complement the VA system of national cemeteries, assists states in establishing, expanding or improving state veterans' cemeteries in areas not served by a national cemetery.

VA awarded a new state cemetery grant to Grand Junction, Colo., for $5.9 million and increased prior cemetery grant awards in Union Grove, Wis., by $774,000, in Little Rock, Ark., by $843,000, and in Exeter, R.I., by $16,500.

The NCA scanning initiative, an electronic scanning process for headstone and marker applications, was completed. All facets of headstone and marker application processing are faster and more accurate. This project significantly decreased the time between receipt of applications and families' receiving their headstones and markers.

Department Governance

In May, Deputy Secretary Dr. Leo S. Mackay, Jr., established the VA Governance Framework to provide a process and procedures for the development of policy, planning and management recommendations for the secretary. The Governance Framework is modeled after the Interagency Process used by the National Command Authorities and others. Mackay's system comprises two councils: The senior VA Executive Board is chaired by the secretary and provides direction on departmental policy, strategy, resource allocation and performance in key areas; Mackay chairs the Strategic Management Council, which reviews, discusses and provides the Secretary and the VA Executive Board with recommendations on department-wide policy, strategic direction, resource allocation and performance in key areas.

Other Accomplishments

The VA Secretary and President Bush endorsed and strongly supported Congressional action that increased the maximum amount of Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance from $200,000 to $250,000, effective April 1, 2001. VA coordinated system and procedural changes to implement the new law and notify service members of the program enhancement.

In July, Principi formed the VA Acquisition System Task Force to examine the department's $5 billion annual contracting operation, seeking to improve efficiency, reduce bureaucratic overhead and cut costs. It will report in 120 days on proposals to improve the department's complex system for purchasing everything from X-ray equipment to wheelchairs. In health care alone, VA has more than 1,000 multi-year contracts worth more than $10 billion covering medical, dental and surgical supplies, plus medications, equipment and laboratory items. These contracts cover not only health care needs of veterans but also the medical purchasing requirements of several other government agencies.

Principi approved VetPop2000, the latest actuarial model providing VA's official estimate of the veteran population and its projection through the year 2029. The new population model and its projections are more accurate, comprehensive and accessible. The data will enhance assessments of legislative and program impact, future costs, workload and resource placement.

Principi opened the new Veterans Enterprise Center in February as part of the VA Small and Disadvantaged Business program. The center is a one-stop resource for veterans who own or want to start their own businesses. It offers information about loans, business management programs, online training and procurement opportunities at all levels of government. The center is associated with the Small Business Administration, the Department of Labor and the Association of Small Business Development Centers.

In partnership with Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), VA hosted the 15th annual National Veterans Golden Age Games in Dallas, June 9-16. The Golden Age Games are for veterans age 55 and older, and attracted more than 500 participants. In partnership with Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), VA hosted the 21st annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in New York City, July 1-5. The Wheelchair Games are for veterans who use wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries, amputations, and other neurological problems. They also attracted more than 500 participants and scored major media coverage. Children who use wheelchairs were recognized and included during this year's Wheelchair Games, whose honorary chair was film star Bo Derek.

VA received more than 130 grant applications to provide transitional housing, vans for transportation and service centers for homeless veterans. Those grants are under review and VA plans to award approximately $10 million to state and local governments, tribal governments and faith-based and community non-profit organizations by mid-September.

VA approved several state nursing home grants. Nursing home grants were awarded to Aurora, Colo., on July 12 for $15.5 million; Lawton, Okla., on June 25 for $24.8 million; and Union Grove, Wis., on May 16 for $1.9 million. These grants help the states to construct or acquire facilities for furnishing domiciliary, nursing home or hospital care to veterans. VA pays up to 65 percent of the estimated cost of construction, including the provision of initial equipment for building.

Principi supported expeditious construction of the National World War II Memorial on the National Mall, a position strongly supported by leaders and members of veterans service organizations. In the Secretary's view, it also has the strong support of the American people and should not be sidelined by a technicality; the costs are human. Of the 16 million men and women who served in World War II, barely 5 million remain. Each day approximately 1,100 die.

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Date:Jul 27, 2001
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