Since day one of his Administration, President Obama has maintained a steadfast commitment to honor and serve the brave men and women who have served this country – our nation’s Veterans. As the President said earlier this year, “As President, I consider it my obligation to help make sure—that even though less than one percent of Americans wear the uniform—that 100 percent of Americans honor your sacrifices.”
Over the past seven years, the Administration has made good on this commitment. More Veterans are receiving health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) than ever before. VA is delivering more benefits to more Veterans than ever before. We are working to end Veteran homelessness in cities and states nationwide. And under the leadership of the First Lady and Dr. Biden, the Administration is working with businesses large and small to hire Veterans in good jobs with a simple message – if you want somebody who’s going to get the job done and done right, hire a Veteran.
On this Veterans Day, the Administration is announcing progress in each of the five pillars of the Veterans agenda that the President has set forth, including the announcement by Governor McAuliffe that the Commonwealth of Virginia has become the first state in the country to end Veteran homelessness statewide. The City of Las Vegas, Nevada; the City of Syracuse, New York; and the City of Schenectady, New York also will announce that they have ended Veteran homelessness in their cities. The Administration is also announcing new measures to make sure Veterans get the most out of their education through in-state tuition rates, enhanced oversight and enforcement against deceptive college enrollment practices that target Veterans, and the launch of a re-designed GI Bill Comparison Tool that for the first time provides Veteran-specific outcome measures on graduation and retention rates.
I. Health Care – Helping Veterans get the care they need, when they need it
Last year, our Veterans experienced an emerging access to care crisis, with too many waiting too long to receive care. The President demanded swift action to address this challenge, and under the leadership of Secretary McDonald, VA has responded.
VA has dramatically increased access to care for our Veterans, completing approximately 7 million more appointments both in VA and the community in the 12 months immediately following the access crisis. This increase in access is happening both within VA, and through our partners in the community. However, at the same time that access has improved, Veterans have responded by coming to the VA for more care. To keep up with this rising demand, VA is focusing on four strategies for improving access:
- Increasing staffing – From August 2014 to August 2015, the Veterans Health Administration increased net onboard staff by over 14,000, including over 1,400 more physicians, 3,800 nurses, 116 psychiatrists, and 422 psychologists.
- Expanding space and facilities – VA has activated approximately 2.2 million square feet in VA facilities last fiscal year and increased the number of primary care exam rooms so providers can care for more Veterans each day.
- Improving productivity – VA is aggressively identifying unused capacity, optimizing scheduling, heading off “no-shows” and late appointment cancellations, and extending clinic hours at night and on weekends to make its operations more efficient and effective.
- Accelerating use of care in the community – Through the Veterans Choice Program and its other non-VA care initiatives, VA has increased Veteran options for care for 7 percent more people than last year – a total of 1.4 million individual VA beneficiaries.
While this is critical progress, as the President has made clear, there is more work to be done. And one of the key tools to continued improvement in access to care is improving VA’s myriad of care in the community programs. At the beginning of this month, VA sent Congress a plan identifying numerous potential reforms that would streamline and improve the way VA delivers care in the community. These reforms include creating a single set of eligibility criteria for all community care; streamlining business rules in referral and authorization to minimize delays in receiving care; creating a high-performing network of VA and community care providers capable of delivering consistent, high-quality care to Veterans; strengthening care coordination across VA and community providers; and speeding up the claims processing and reimbursement process. Improvements such as these will allow our partners in the community to deliver care for our Veterans in a more timely, efficient, and consistent way.
The Administration looks forward to working with Congress to enact these and other reforms to continue improving access to care across the VA health care system.
II. Benefits – Continuing to attack the disability claims backlog and making sure Veterans get the benefits they have earned
Looking back to two and a half years ago, we were stuck in a system that was fundamentally failing to deliver Veterans the benefits that they had earned. Over 610,000 disability claims were stuck in a backlog, with the number growing every week. And VA was still trying to move beyond antiquated, paper-based processes that adjudicated claims by handling 5,000 tons of paper each year.
Since that time, VA has transformed the way that it provides benefits to Veterans, implementing electronic-based processing of claims and reworking its processes to become dramatically more efficient. And the results have been undeniable. Today, the backlog stands at approximately 76,000 disability claims, which is an 88 percent reduction from its peak in March 2013 and an historic low. This past fiscal year, VA completed a record-breaking 1.4 million claims. Today, Veterans with a pending claim are waiting, on average, 188 days less for a claim decision, from a peak of 282 days in March 2013 to 94 days today. And VA has done all of this without sacrificing quality or accuracy, with 96 percent of issues on a claim being accurately adjudicated.
Both the President and Secretary McDonald are committed to continuing to attack the backlog until every Veteran receives a decision on his or her claim as quickly as possible. At the same time, we have to make sure that all parts of the claims process, not just the initial decisions, are serving the best interests of our Veterans. That is why the President is renewing his call on Congress to reform the broken appeals process. The current process leaves Veterans hanging – sometimes for years or even decades – waiting for a final decision on their appeal. Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) have worked in collaboration with the VA to develop a pilot program – known as Fully Developed Appeals – that would begin fixing this broken process. The President is calling on Congress to enact this program without delay, while also pursuing more fundamental changes to the appeals process that can allow it to serve Veterans in a timely fashion.
III. Homelessness – Ending Veteran homelessness and fighting to uphold the dignity of every Veteran
In 2010, the Administration released Opening Doors, the nation’s first-ever national strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Among other things, this plan set forward an aggressive strategy to end Veteran homelessness.
Since that time, through focused collaboration with governors, mayors, private sector and philanthropic partners, Congress, and others, we have made tremendous strides in reducing Veteran homelessness. Cities across the country – from New Orleans and Houston to Mobile and Winston-Salem – have already announced that they have put an end to Veteran homelessness. Today, we are taking another major step forward in this effort, with Governor McAuliffe’s announcement that the Commonwealth of Virginia has become the first state in the country to end Veteran homelessness statewide. In addition, the cities of Las Vegas (Nevada), Syracuse (New York), and Schenectady (New York) are announcing that they have ended Veteran homelessness in their cities.
Next week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will release the results of the 2015 Point-in-Time Count of homelessness across the country. These results show that overall Veteran homelessness has decreased by 36 percent between 2010 and January 2015, and unsheltered homelessness has decreased by nearly 50 percent, resulting in tens of thousands fewer Veterans on the streets and without a place to stay. And the VA is serving more Veterans than ever before with specialized homelessness or at-risk services.
But this work will not be finished until every Veteran has a home, and every community has the tools in place to keep Veterans from sliding back into homelessness. That is why the First Lady and Dr. Biden have launched the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness, with over 800 city and county officials signing on to end Veteran homelessness by the end of the year. And through the Joining Forces initiative, we will continue to collaborate with these communities, as well as local stakeholders such as landlord associations and housing navigators, to make it easier for Veterans to get assistance and find affordable housing.
IV. Economic Opportunity – Fighting to give Veterans every chance to enjoy the American Dream
Our commitment to honoring our nation’s Veterans can’t only mean helping them get the health care and benefits they’ve earned through service. It also means giving them the opportunities to put the skills they’ve learned through service to work back at home – educating themselves, starting businesses, and contributing to our economy.
As the economy as a whole has rebounded from the most significant economic crisis since the Great Depression, more Veterans are going back to work. The Veteran unemployment rate has now dropped to 3.9 percent, a seven-year low. In addition, the unemployment rate for Post-9/11 veterans is 4.6 percent today, decreasing from a high of 12.1 percent in 2011. And the Administration is committed to continuing this progress. Businesses across the country have committed to hiring or training hundreds of thousands of Veterans and military spouses. Since the launch of the Joining Forces initiative in 2011, more than 850,000 Veterans and military spouses have been hired. VA also continues to collaborate with national and community partners across all industries and sectors to help them better integrate with their communities and find meaningful jobs that lead to long-term economic success. To that end, VA recently expanded the Veterans Economic Communities Initiative (VECI) from 25 to 50 communities nationwide. This initiative establishes economic liaisons in each community to help Veterans access resources, interface with local government, businesses, and non-profits, and identify education and employment opportunities. We’ve made improvements to the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to help transitioning service members acquire the skills they need to seamlessly integrate into the civilian economy. And working with Joining Forces, 49 states have now stepped up to eliminate barriers to licensing and credentialing for military spouses, improving career mobility and job opportunities.
We’re also making sure that Veterans and their family members receive the benefits of a high-quality education. Since inception of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009, VA has provided over $57 billion in education benefits to over 1.5 million individuals and their educational institutions. Most recently, legislation signed by the President expanded the eligibility criteria for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits under the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to the surviving spouses of service members who died in the line of duty after September 10, 2001. Finally, the Administration has worked to improve the GI Bill Comparison Tool – created as part of the President’s 2012 Executive Order Establishing Principles of Excellence for Educational Institutions Serving Service Members, Veterans, Spouses, and Other Family Members – that has helped nearly 1.3 million individuals calculate estimated GI Bill benefits, research certain school attributes, and compare educational institutions.
Today, the Administration is expanding on these efforts by announcing new measures to make sure Veterans get the most out of their education. These include:
- Announcing that all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico are now providing recently transitioning Veterans and their dependents with in-state tuition rates at public institutions of higher learning. This progress was brought about by a provision in the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act that the President signed into law last August;
- Enhancing relationships with Federal enforcement agencies by signing a new agreement between VA and the Federal Trade Commission to provide enhanced oversight and strengthen enforcement against schools that engage in deceptive or misleading advertising, sales, or enrollment practices towards Veterans; and
- ·Launching a re-designed, new and improved GI Bill Comparison Tool that for the first time provides Veteran-specific outcome measures on graduation and retention rates and provides Veterans with the information they need to determine which schools and programs produce the best outcomes.
And the President is calling on Congress to take action on specific legislative proposals that will improve education outcomes for Veterans. These include:
- Swiftly pass the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act of 2015, which would toughen requirements for schools receiving funds through the GI Bill to make sure they prepare student Veterans for employment by meeting state-specific criteria for accreditation, certification or licensure in programs such as law, teaching, criminal justice, nursing, psychology, medical assisting, dental assisting and surgical technology. This bipartisan legislation was introduced by Senators Blumenthal (D-CT) and Tillis (R-NC) and Representative Takano (D-CA).
- Enact the bipartisan Veterans Education Relief and Reinstatement Act of 2015, introduced in the Senate by Senators Blumenthal (D-CT) and Tillis (R-NC) and in the House by Representatives Takano (D-CA) and Gibson (R-NY), to provide the Secretary the authority to reinstate GI Bill benefits for students whose schools close midterm, and extend housing benefits for students who would otherwise not receive them. This legislation would help protect GI Bill benefits for those Veterans left without recourse by the actions of schools like those owned by Corinthian Colleges, which closed and filed for bankruptcy last spring.
- Take up the Protecting Our Students and Taxpayers Act of 2015, which has been introduced by Sen. Durbin (D-IL), to prevent schools that survive almost entirely on revenue from the Federal government from aggressively targeting Veterans by reinstating the original “85/15” rule. Under this proposal, to participate in Title IV Federal student aid, no more than 85 percent of a for-profit school’s revenue may be derived from all Federal educational programs, including not only Title IV Federal student aid but also VA and DOD educational benefits. This would expand upon the President’s FY 2016 Budget proposal and the Military and Veterans Education Protection Act of 2015, which has been introduced by Sen. Carper (D-DE) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) to close the “90/10 loophole” that excludes VA and DOD student aid from the calculation of Federal dollars, a policy that encourages for-profit colleges to aggressively target service members and Veterans to retain institutional eligibility for Federal student aid funds from the Department of Education.
Taken together, these steps will ensure that Veterans have the opportunities and assistance they need to help grow our economy and realize the American Dream.
V. Resources – Making sure Veterans have the resources and funding they deserve
The President has also made it a priority to make sure that the Federal government is providing the resources needed to deliver on these and other commitments made to Veterans. During this Administration, the President has requested – and received – historic increases in funding for the VA. And the President’s 2016 Budget furthers this commitment, providing the resources to fulfill VA’s mission to provide timely, quality health care and services to Veterans.
The President recently signed a responsible, long-term budget agreement that reflects our values, grows our economy, creates jobs, and provides for our national security. Importantly, this agreement ensures that we can provide the types of investments called for in the President’s Budget to support our Veterans – not only at the VA, but at other agencies that support Veterans. We’re encouraged to see the Senate moving forward on the MilCon/VA spending bill that invests in key priorities for our military and Veterans, and look forward to working together on final spending bills that reflect these priorities.
Together, these steps will ensure we fully honor the service given by these brave men and women.