Sen. Brown Examines Budget Proposal for Veterans During Committee Hearing

WASHINGTON, D.C. –U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today attended a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Hearing which examined the Administration’s budget request for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Veterans of every generation should not have to wonder if they’ll continue to receive high quality care and consistent benefits from the VA,” Brown said. “As we debate where we invest and where we cut, it is increasingly important that the VA is not subjected to radical proposed cuts in vital services. I will work to build on the progress of several years past, and lay a stronger foundation from which to build in the years to come.”

 

Brown acknowledged the importance of deficit reduction, but emphasized the need to maintain critical services for our nation’s veterans. Though Brown lauded Sec. Shinseki for taking steps to decrease the claims backlogs, Brown called for measurable progress in pending claims reduction along with updates to VA buildings—which are on average, 60 years old. In addition to maintaining and improving quality services provided by the VA, Brown pointed to potential cuts to other agencies and programs that could affect veterans. If the proposed $3.8 billion in cuts to the Workforce Investment Act pass Congress—which would shutter the 95 One Stops in Ohio—the Veteran’s Workforce Investment Program (VWIP) may also be affected.

Below is Sen. Brown’s statement as prepared for delivery:

We are all concerned with the budget deficit – as we are with the education deficit or the infrastructure deficit – facing our nation. But as we debate where we invest and where we cut, it is increasingly important that the VA be assured funding – and not subject to radical proposed cuts in vital services.

 

Veterans of every generation should not have to wonder if they’ll continue to receive high quality care and consistent benefits from the VA. The services veterans receive depend on the quality of VA facilities, employees, research, and technology. 

 

It is up to all of us to ensure that quality remains a top priority in all VA operations, and that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.  And it is up to all of us to focus on efficiency and effectiveness rather indiscriminate and often crippling cuts that undermine veterans’ services and our economic recovery.

 

We must consider how potential cuts to other agencies and programs will affect veterans, and if these cuts will lead a higher proportion of veterans to turn to the VA for assistance.  For example, H.R.1 proposes devastating cuts to Workforce Investment Act programs in Ohio. 95 One Stops in Ohio – and 3,000 nation-wide – will have to close their doors if the proposed $3.8 billion in cuts to WIA pass Congress.  The Veteran’s Workforce Investment Program (VWIP) is funded through WIA.  Will the proposed cuts impact this program? If it’s estimated that veterans will increasingly turn to the VA, do the VA’s Contingency Fund and advanced appropriations requests reflect this prediction? 

 

I’m pleased to see that the VA has incorporated a Contingency Fund for medical care in 2012, and advanced appropriations for 2013. This will help Congress and the VA to more accurately plan for the VA’s future, and continually improve their care and services.

 

Secretary Shinseki, I applaud you for taking on three of the VA’s most pressing issues – the claims backlog, veteran homelessness, and increased and expanded access to VA health care and benefits. I trust that your efforts will bear fruit. Like many of my colleagues, I have concerns regarding the VBA backlog and the Board of Veterans Appeals caseload. 

 

Secretary Shinseki, your dedication to breaking the backlog and achieving 98 percent accuracy rate for claims can be in impetus for cultural change at the VBA. Over the past several years, Congress has provided the resources to hire nearly 4,000 additional adjudicators to address the backlog. Yet, as of January 31, 2011, pending claims had increased by 37 percent over last year’s levels. And that’s not including new Agent Orange claims for the three new presumptive conditions established in 2010 (ischemic heart disease, B-cell leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease.)

 

Not only is the backlog continuing to grow and age, but the accuracy of claims is approximately 80 percent. The Board of Veteran’s Appeals expects a 63 percent increase in case receipts from 2008 to 2012. Given this background, when can we expect to see the fruits of the labor to “reduce the backlog?”

 

The Administration’s budget pretty much levels Compensation and Pension staff – has the VBA reached its optimal employment level? Do the claims backlog and appeals receipts continue to grow because staff are inadequately trained, or because IT programs must be implemented?

Or are we waiting on the outcomes of pilot programs? 

 

In June 2010, a Navy Veteran from Hamilton, Ohio who contacted my office for assistance with his VA claim. He was exposed to radiation during his service and developed thyroid cancer. His initial VA claim filed in 2005 was denied, and it wasn’t until his Notice of Disagreement was upheld that his case actually made it to the VBA. VBA remanded the case for dose reconstruction and it was sent to Nashville, and then sent back to the Appeals Management Center (AMC), and then AMC sent it to the VA Regional Office in Cleveland citing lack of jurisdiction. This veteran’s dose reconstruction has yet to be constructed and his claim will still have to go back to the VBA once it’s determined. It’s been more than 5 years since he started the process. The backlog is a symptom of the problem – not the problem itself.  Let’s not treat symptoms, let’s address causes. 

 

Let’s also address the disparity in disability compensation.  Ohio is consistently at the bottom of benefit ratings.  A bum knee in Lima, Ohio should be worth the same as a bum knee in San Diego. I hope the panelist can discuss how this year’s budget will do just that.

 

I am also concerned with the President’s FY12 budget request for VA Major and Minor Construction. This year’s request is $757 million less than FY11 and approximately $1.65 billion less than the amount proposed by the Independent Budget. The VA has a $24.3 billion construction backlog.  

 

Given that the average age of a VA medical facility is nearing 60 years old and funding for maintenance is chronically underestimated, why is the Administration’s budget proposal halving Major and Minor Construction?

 

It is my hope that today’s panel will answer and bring insight to these questions and the questions of my colleagues. We must ensure that the FY2012 budget for the Department of Veterans Affairs accurately reflects the Agency’s needs. The FY2012 budget must build on the progress of several years past, and lay a stronger foundation from which to build in the years to come.

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