News: Shinseki Pledges Better Support for Veterans
Story by Gerry Gilmore
WASHINGTON - The Veterans Affairs Department continues its efforts to provide the best support possible to the nation's military veterans, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told a House committee here, Oct. 14.
"We have been busy putting into place the foundation for our pursuit of the president's two goals for this department: transform VA into a 21st-century organization, and ensure that we provide timely access to benefits and high quality care to our veterans over their lifetimes -- from the day they first take their oaths of allegiance until the day they are laid to rest," Shinseki said in his written statement provided to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Shinseki's previous "State of the VA" report to Congress was in February. Today, Shinseki pledged he would "continue working to craft a shared vision for the department, one that will be enduring."
"We remain guided by our determination to be people-centric — veterans and the work force count in this department; results-driven — we will not be graded on our promises, but by our accomplishments; and forward-looking — we strive to be the model for governance in the 21st century," the secretary said.
The VA's nearly 300,000 employees all share one mission, Shinseki said, which is "to care for our nation's veterans, wherever they live, by providing them the highest quality benefits and services possible."
Among the nation's 23.4 million living veterans, nearly 8 million choose to access Veterans Affairs-provided services and benefits, the secretary said. The department, he added, will work diligently every day to provide those services "faster, better, and more equitably."
The nation's veterans "put themselves at risk to assure our safety as a people and the preservation of our way of life," Shinseki said. Not all are combat veterans, he said, but all were prepared to be.
VA's mission, Shinseki said, is to care for veterans who endure physical and mental hardships acquired during their military duty. He cited the "cruel misfortunes that often accompany difficult operational missions, and the reality of what risk taking really means to people in the operational environment."
VA health care, services and benefits are in great demand, Shinseki said, noting that demand increases each year. More than 4 million new veterans have been added to the VA's health care rolls since 2001, he said.
Some of today's youngest veterans are dealing with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and other multiple-trauma injuries from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
"We will provide them the care they deserve," the secretary pledged. He also promised to improve the quality of care delivered to veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Desert Storm and other operational deployments.
A 2003 policy change that's based on where a veteran lives and relaxed income thresholds has enabled many more veterans to access VA care, Shinseki reported, but it also has increased VA's workload. Still, he said, VA is prepared to accommodate up to 500,000 new enrollees, to be phased in over the next four years.
Expanded benefits have increased VA's workload in other areas as well. While the post 9/11 GI Bill expanded educational opportunities, Shinseki noted, it also has challenged paper-bound processes. Therefore, he said, aggressive efforts are under way to transfer paper documents to computers to provide more, better and faster decisions in disability claims and educational benefits.
Additionally, "the honor of providing final resting places for our veterans remains a source of immense professional pride for the National Cemeteries Administration, and indeed, the rest of VA," Shinseki stated. The NCA, he wrote, consistently meets the demographic standards associated with veteran burials and exceeds expectations with regard to care and compassion for heroes' families.
The NCA over the past year has interred about 107,000 veterans at 130 national cemeteries, Shinseki said. Five new national cemeteries have been opened, he added, and 16 cemetery projects have been funded for expansion.
"Our veterans have earned and deserve our respect and appreciation for their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families," Shinseki wrote, adding that VA is "privileged to have the mission of demonstrating the thanks of a grateful nation."