August 1, 2016, White House Press Office – Over the past seven and a half years, the President has maintained a steadfast commitment to serve our nation’s veterans. In his speech to the 95th Disabled American Veterans (DAV) National Convention, the President will make clear that this commitment is a national responsibility and a promise that cannot be broken, and that the U.S. government and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) have a vital role to play. This is not a responsibility that can be shirked by offering empty words belied by policies that would leave veterans to fend for themselves.
The President will review the hard, persistent work that the Administration has done to keep this promise. From delivering more health care than ever before, to providing veterans the benefits they have earned in a timely way, to expanding cutting edge research in areas like Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), to helping veterans get the education and jobs they need to succeed, the Administration has an indisputable record of support for our veterans.
In his speech, the President will also announce two major new milestones in this effort:
· Since launching a nationwide strategy to prevent and end homelessness in 2010, the Administration has worked with state and local partners to cut veteran homelessness nearly in half.
· As part of the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), 500,000 veterans have voluntarily donated their health data to the future of science and medicine through the VA’s Million Veteran Program (MVP), marking a critical halfway point to the goal of signing up one million veterans.
Moving forward, the President and the entire Administration will keep fighting in five core areas of service to our nation’s veterans.
I. Health Care – Making sure veterans have timely and high-quality access to care
An essential part of this commitment is ensuring veterans receive the health care they need, when they need it. VA continues to make progress in this effort, increasing access to care and ensuring veterans are satisfied with their care. Over the past year, VA has served a historic number of veterans, completing nearly 58 million appointments, almost 5 million more than the year before. Even as more veterans are coming to VA for more care, nearly 97% of those appointments are completed within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred date or the date that is clinically appropriate. And 90% of veterans surveyed are either “satisfied” or “completely satisfied” with the timeliness of their care.
But there is still more work to be done, and VA continues to execute on a number of strategies to increase access to care:
· Expanding care in the community – VA continues to increase options for care for veterans, authorizing 3.2 million instances of care in the community from June 2015 through May 2016, 7% more than the prior year. In addition, VA put forward a comprehensive plan last October to rationalize its various care in the community programs, creating a single program that is easy to understand, simple to administer, and meets the needs of veterans, community providers, and VA staff.
· Increasing clinic hours – Over the last 2 years, VA has increased total clinical work by 10%, which translates into roughly 20 million more hours of care for veterans.
· Getting veterans off wait lists – VA has hosted two National Access Stand Down events at all VA Medical Centers, with the goal of addressing urgent health care needs and getting veterans off of waiting lists.
· Making enrollment easier – In June 2016, VA released a new digital health care application, making it easier for veterans to enroll in VA health care.
· Leading in telehealth – VA conducted over 2 million telehealth visits in Fiscal Year 2015, reaching more than 677,000 veterans. And it is developing 4 regional Telemental Health Hubs to improve access to telemental health care for veterans.
· Improving care for women veterans – Women are the fastest growing subgroup of veterans, and to ensure the proper resources and support, the VA has now trained over 2,400 providers in women’s health to ensure that every women veteran has the opportunity to receive her primary care from a Designated Women’s Health Provider. 100% of VA Medical Clinics and 94% of Community Based Outpatient Clinics now have at least one Designated Women’s Health Provider.
· Expanding space and facilities – VA activated over 2.2 million square feet in VA facilities last fiscal year for clinical, mental health, and long-term care.
The Administration has also prioritized steps to improve mental health care for veterans. Building on an Executive Order issued in 2012, a series of additional actions announced by the President in 2014, and the signing of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, we have made significant progress in this effort. Since the President took office, funding for veterans’ mental health care has increased by 76%. The number of veterans accessing mental health care from VA has increased by 80% over the past decade to over 1.6 million veterans. But our work is not done. The VA recently announced a new commitment to provide same-day services for all veterans with urgent mental health care needs by the end of this year.
At the same time that we are caring for veterans today, we continue to invest in research to develop the next generation of medical care. Central to this is the Million Veteran Program (MVP), a cornerstone of the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) which is helping make tailored treatments a reality for all Americans. MVP is a longitudinal research program powered by the continued service of our nation’s veterans. By enrolling in MVP, participants donate their health information to help researchers and health professionals better understand health and disease and pave the way for future discoveries that will benefit us all. Tomorrow, the President will announce that 500,000 veterans have now enrolled in MVP, bringing us halfway to our goal of a million veterans.
II. Benefits – Tackling the backlog of claims and modernizing the appeals process
We have taken dramatic steps to make sure that veterans get an answer on their disability compensation claims in a timely and efficient manner and get the benefits they deserve and have earned. Three and a half years ago, nearly 610,000 disability claims were stuck in a backlog waiting for longer than 125 days, and the VA did not have the capacity to keep up with an increasing number of claims. Veterans were left languishing for far too long. But by transforming internal processes and putting in place a new electronic system to move beyond the archaic paper-based system that was in place, VA has made extraordinary progress. Today, that backlog of disability claims is less than 80,000, a nearly 90% reduction from its peak in 2013. Last year, VA set a new record high by processing 1.4 million benefits claims for veterans, and has already processed over 1 million claims this fiscal year – the 7th year in a row that milestone has been met. And veterans with a pending claim are waiting less than a third as long as they used to for a decision – 90 days today, down from 282 days in March 2013.
At the same time, as the VA continues to process more initial disability compensation claims, a greater number of veterans are getting stuck in a broken appeals process. When veterans appeal their claim decision, they should be able to get an answer back – with a clear and direct path forward to resolution – within a year. Unfortunately, the broken process that exists today – created by decades of overlapping laws, court cases, and regulations – doesn’t allow for that. Currently, more than 450,000 appeals are pending at some point in the current process, and veterans are waiting an average of 3 years for a decision (and an average of 5 years for those appeals that go all the way through the process and reach the Board of Veterans Appeals). This state of affairs is unacceptable and is failing veterans.
The VA has taken what steps it can to improve the current process, including introducing a new tool to improve internal processing. But what is needed is broad reform, and the problem is only going to get worse until Congress acts. That is why the President is reiterating his call for comprehensive legislative modernization of the appeals process. The Administration has worked closely with Veteran Service Organizations to submit a proposal to Congress that accomplishes this goal. Congress should act on this legislation without delay – our veterans cannot afford to wait any longer.
III. Homelessness – Working to prevent and end veteran homelessness
Ending veteran homelessness is a national imperative. And beginning in 2010 with the release of Opening Doors, the nation’s first-ever strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness, the Administration has dedicated itself to this goal. The First Lady and Dr. Biden launched the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, and over 880 city and county officials have now pledged to end veteran homelessness. From New Orleans to Houston, Philadelphia to San Antonio, and Virginia to Connecticut, cities and states across the country have already announced that they have done just that. In total, 27 communities and 2 states have announced they have ended veteran homelessness to-date.
Tomorrow, the President will announce a major national milestone in this ongoing effort. Based on results of the 2016 Point-in-Time Count of homelessness across the country conducted in January, veteran homelessness declined by 17% last year to under 40,000 individuals. This means that we have cut overall veteran homeless nearly in half – by 47% – since 2010. And the progress is even more pronounced for those veterans that had been living on the street and without a place to stay, as unsheltered veteran homelessness declined by 20% last year and has declined by 56% since 2010.
The Administration is also announcing that, later this fall, the First Lady will be holding an event with local officials, non-profits, Federal partners, private sector partners, advocates, and veterans to celebrate this extraordinary progress, announce additional milestones in the fight to end veteran homelessness, and underscore the Federal, state and local partnerships that have been essential to our success, as a blueprint for this critical work to continue in coming years.
IV. Economic Opportunity – Fighting to give veterans every chance to enjoy the American Dream
When veterans return home from their service to our country, we must ensure they have the opportunities and resources they need to succeed. Our veterans gain immense skills during their time in service that employers can leverage to help build our economy. The Administration continues to work to make sure veterans are provided opportunities to fulfill the American dream.
We continue to see significant progress in employment for veterans. The unemployment rate for veterans has been cut by more than half, falling from a high of 9.9% in January 2011 to 4.2% in June 2016, lower than the national average. Progress is similarly encouraging for Post-9/11 veterans, where the unemployment rate is 4.4% today, decreasing from a high of 15.2% in January 2011. To build on this progress, businesses across the country are coming together and answering the call of the President and the entire Administration to hire veterans. Since the launch of the First Lady and Dr. Jill Biden’s Joining Forces initiative, more than 1.2 million veterans and military spouses have been hired or trained. In May, the First Lady announced more than 170,000 new veteran and military spouse hiring and training commitments from over 50 companies in the telecommunications, aerospace, and technology sectors over the next 5 years. This is a joint effort to provide veterans and military spouses with meaningful employment and opportunities to gain new skills for our workforce. And the Federal government continues to play a leading role in the drive to hire veterans, increasing the percentage of veterans hired by the Executive Branch from 24 percent when the President took office to 32 percent last year, and hiring a total of roughly 475,000 veterans during that time.
The President has also made it a priority to ensure veterans and their families have access to the high-quality education they need to succeed. And that starts with the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Since its inception in 2009, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has provided $65.2 billion in education benefits to over 1.6 million individuals. Today, in response to legislation the President signed into law, all 50 states, Washington D.C., and the 5 U.S. Territories are providing recently transitioning veterans and their dependents with in-state tuition rates at public institutions of higher learning. And we have taken important steps to expand veterans’ awareness of their education options, expanding the GI Bill Comparison Tool and redesigning the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to expand technical training and equip veterans with the skills they need.
V. Resources and Transformation at the VA – Making sure VA is serving every veteran
This Administration has made historic investments in serving our veterans, increasing access to health care, expanding benefits, and investing in VA research and facilities. The President’s 2017 Budget continues this record of robust support, providing $75 billion in discretionary funding for the VA, an increase of $3.6 billion over the 2016 enacted level. These resources will support priorities such as additional processing capacity for disability claims appeals and strong support for veteran homelessness programs. The Budget also includes a 2018 advance appropriations request for discretionary Medical Care of $66.4 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion over the 2017 request, to ensure that VA has the funding certainty it needs to provide health care for veterans. The level of overall funding requested in the President’s 2017 Budget represents an over 85% increase in funding for the VA compared to when the President took office.
But serving every veteran is not just about resources; it’s also about establishing an organization that has the veteran’s needs at the center of everything that it does. Under the leadership of Secretary McDonald, VA is in the process of becoming just that type of organization through the MyVA initiative. MyVA is the name of VA’s transformation effort that puts veterans in control of how, when, and where they wish to be served. The MyVA vision is to provide a seamless, unified Veteran Experience across the entire organization and throughout the country. VA is working to reorganize the Department with this vision in mind, guided by ideas and initiatives from veterans, employees, Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) and others. And as part of MyVA, the Department is taking a number of discrete steps, including establishing a new Advisory Committee of skilled experts from the private, non-profit and government sectors, creating new Community Veteran Engagement Boards across the country, building an Innovators Network to share ideas to improve the organization, and launching a new website – vets.gov – to serve as a one-stop shop for veterans to access services from the VA.