March 14, 2009 – The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee wants President Barack Obama to add another $800 million to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs fiscal year 2010 budget to ensure veterans’ health care funding doesn’t dry up.
Obama’s proposed 2010 budget for the VA calls for a total budget of $113 billion, a $15 billion increase above 2009 levels. The request includes $52.5 billion in discretionary funding – an increase of $4.9 billion from 2009, or 10.3 percent. The bulk of discretionary spending goes to VA medical care.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-CA, said Friday that Obama’s budget proposal “marks the first time any President has submitted a budget that exceeds the recommendations of the Independent Budget.”
However, Filer said he wants Obama to add another $600 million to cover health care funding due to the fact that the the Veterans’ Affairs Committee does not accept Obama’s budget proposal which claims that it intends to raise $3.4 billion in 2010 by billing private medical insurance companies to cover part of the cost of treating veterans in VA facilities. Filner requested an additional $200 million to cover operating expenses associated with overhauling the VA’s antiquated benefits claims system.
Moreover, Filner said the Obama administration’s commitment to “cleaning up the [benefits] claims backlog” and other “high priority areas of interest…including caring for our returning service members, improving the VA’s ability to provide mental heath care and services, addressing homelessness among veterans, and not forgetting the veterans of previous generations…is refreshing.”
The House Budget Committee will take up the additional funding request in the weeks ahead.
Earlier this week, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki presented an overview of the VA’s 2010 budget to Filner’s committee. Shinseki said he is currently overseeing the implementation of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill and re-engineering the Veterans Benefits Administration into a paperless system. Shinseki also said he is working to ensure eligibility for VA health care extends to non-disabled veterans earning modest incomes.
Separately, Shinseki sent an “open letter” addressed to “Fellow Veterans” Friday in which he promised to fulfill Obama’s “vision” for turning the VA into a ” 21st Century organization.”
Shinseki’s letter, while short on specifics, certainly seems to live up one of the retired general’s early promises about connecting with veterans. One of the major complaints about the last administration was that VA officials were disconnected from the veterans they served and thereby out of touch with their needs.
Shinseki, on the other hand, made it a point in his letter to tell veterans their “needs are not irrelevant.”
“Veterans are our clients, and delivering the highest quality care and services in a timely, consistent and fair manner is a VA responsibility,” Shinseki, who was wounded during the Vietnam War, wrote. “I take that responsibility seriously and have charged all of the department’s employees for their best efforts and support every day to meet our obligations to you.”
VA officials told the Army Times “that other than annual Veterans Day messages, they are unaware of any other such letter to veterans sent by a VA secretary for at least a decade, and probably longer.”
Still, despite Shinseki’s attempts to change the image of the VA, the agency continues to be plagued by scandal.
A recent VA inspector general’s report revealed that in 2007, VA benefits claims employees working at a processing center in Detroit turned in 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail including 700 benefits claims and 2,700 medical records and/or medical-related documents under a “mail amnesty” program. The program encouraged VA employees to turn in unprocessed mail and other benefits related documents they had hidden without penalty or repercussions.
A similar “amnesty” program at a VA regional office last December 2008 turned up 717 benefits related documents from VA employees.
Last November, internal watchdogs discovered 500 benefits claims in shredding bins at the 41 of the 57 regional VA offices around the country.
“Obviously we are going to have to get complete information from VA about these amnesties, but it is impossible not to be shocked by the numbers from Detroit,” said Rep. Harry Mitchell, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, at a recent hearing entitled: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the Veterans Benefits Administration.”
“Shredding documents, or burying them in the bottom drawer, are a breach of trust by VA. Whether that breach of trust comes as a consequence of inadequate training or negligent or deliberate behavior, Congress much not and will not tolerate it,” Mitchell added.
Paul Sullivan, the executive director of Veterans for Common Sense (VCS), an organization that represents the interests of about 12,000 veterans, said his group is “outraged that VBA [Veterans Benefits Administration] officials in Detroit concealed 16,000 pieces of unprocessed mail, much of it from veterans.”
“Top VBA officials now admit they have ‘lost the trust’ of our Nation’s 23 million veterans,” Sullivan said. “However, VBA leaders in Washington took only mild action, and only a few VA employees were forced to retire early. VCS urges VA Secretary Shinseki to clean house of failed VBA leaders in Washington who are personally responsible for losing the trust of our veterans.
“New VBA leaders are needed now so the new Administration can begin implementing desperately needed reforms and restoring the trust broken by the previous Administration. Frankly, veterans are sick and tired of waiting, on average, more than six months to receive a preliminary answer to a disability claim.”
Moreover, the VA has also come under fire for denying widows of veterans survivors benefits.
For the past 12 years, according to evidence obtained by a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, the VA wrongly interpreted a law that resulted in about 50,000 spouses of deceased veterans losing millions of dollars in benefits or having the Department of the Treasury seek restitution from them for overpayment. The VA said it has developed an action plan to correct the errors which it expects to be finalized by April 2009.