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Washington, D.C—Today, Tuesday, April 23rd, Chairman Patty Murray (D-WA) and the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs.  At this hearing, Secretary Eric Shinseki testified on the veterans’ program proposals in the President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget. In addition to questioning Secretary Shinseki about the Department’s ongoing efforts to provide the care and benefits our veterans have earned, Murray asked Secretary Shinseki to address his recent announcement about Department plans to reduce the claims backlog by expediting the processing of benefit claims that have been pending for a year or more.

In response to the announcement, Murray questioned Secretary Shinseki specifically about the effects of the expedited process, “Secretary Shinseki and Secretary Hickey, as I mentioned, your announcement of a new initiative to expedite claims that have been waiting over a year is encouraging.  I am glad to see the Department is taking action, but I have some questions about how it will be implemented. If VA determines the veteran’s final rating is lower than the provisional rating, will the Department seek to recover money already paid to the veteran?” (WATCH Q&A, begins at 39:30)

Secretary Shinseki’s full testimony

Key Excerpts from Murray’s opening statement:

“One of the newest developments is VA’s recent announcement that it will focus on expediting claims that have been pending for more than a year by granting “provisional” ratings.  This will allow veterans to receive benefits while their claims are finalized. I am pleased the Department is taking action and trying a new initiative to make a difference for our veterans.  But I still have a number of questions about how this will be implemented. Certainly we cannot maintain the status quo, where almost 70 percent of veterans are waiting 125 days or more for their claims.”

“As I have said before, not every veteran will be affected by these invisible wounds.  But when a veteran has the courage to stand up and ask for help, VA must be there every single time.  VA must be there with not only timely access to care, but also the right type of care.”

“This is especially important at a time when 22 veterans per day are taking their own lives.  VA has a number of good initiatives, such as the Veterans Crisis Line and the Suicide Prevention Coordinators, but clearly we still need to do more.”

“I will also continue working to end the terrible epidemic of military sexual assault in the services.  In the coming days, I will introduce legislation to help prevent sexual assault and protect the victims. And at the same time, VA must continue to provide for those suffering from M.S.T. Only a small fraction of sexual assaults in the military are reported.  So VA must provide both the highest quality treatments, but also outreach and screening to help these victims get into care.”

“Getting our veterans into education programs, into good jobs, or starting small businesses doesn’t benefit just the veteran.  It helps us grow our economy and the middle class.  It builds on the investments we have made in our veterans, as they continue to help our communities, our businesses, and fellow veterans.”

Watch Chairman Murray give her opening statement.

Chairman Murray’s opening statement:

“Welcome to this morning’s hearing on the Fiscal Year 2014 budget and the Fiscal Year 2015 Advance Appropriation request for the Department of Veterans Affairs.   I want to thank Secretary Shinseki and his team for being here this morning.  I know you have been very busy over the past couple weeks as you work to roll out the budget request.

“One month ago, the Senate passed our budget resolution.  There was plenty of debate, and plenty of disagreement.  There was a long markup in this Committee.  And there was extensive consideration on the floor. 

“But, there was never any question about the importance of providing for our nations veterans.

“The budget resolution protected funding for veterans benefits and services.  It also included deficit neutral reserve funds to assist in several important policy areas, including: eligibility and delivery of benefits, rural health care, education and training, veterans’ families, and homeless veterans.

“The Department’s budget submission will help inform us as we move forward in discussions with the House on a compromise budget resolution.

“The President’s request is $152.7 billion for VA in fiscal year 2014, and $55.6 billion in advance appropriations for medical care in fiscal year 2015. Overall, this is a strong request, and it represents an increase of more than 10 percent over last year.  It also makes important investments in some high priority areas.

“As we have discussed in the past, it is important that the Department follows good financial management principles.  This means being straightforward with Congress about what the Department’s real needs are.

“It also means accurately projecting costs and savings. And it goes without saying that we expect the Department to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, especially in this difficult budget environment.  There is no place for wasteful spending or inefficiency.

“One of the newest developments is VA’s recent announcement that it will focus on expediting claims that have been pending for more than a year by granting “provisional” ratings.  This will allow veterans to receive benefits while their claims are finalized. I am pleased the Department is taking action and trying a new initiative to make a difference for our veterans. 

“But I still have a number of questions about how this will be implemented. Certainly we cannot maintain the status quo, where almost 70 percent of veterans are waiting 125 days or more for their claims.

“Secretary Shinseki, considering the steps you have taken to address this problem so far, I think you share my concern and dedication to solving this. So I look forward to exploring this new initiative with you today.

“I was pleased to see the Department requested almost $7 billion in funding for mental health care.  This is an increase of more than 7 percent. 

“During the last Congress, we took a hard look at mental health in VA, and found some serious problems.  VA was generally providing good mental health care.  But, understaffing and long wait times were plaguing VA and keeping veterans from the care they needed. 

“Importantly, we also found that the Department did not have an accurate, reliable way of measuring the need for mental health care, and of distributing its staff effectively. We asked the Department to undertake a number of reforms to improve access to care and bring down unacceptably long wait times. This included key changes that were part of the Mental Health ACCESS Act.

“Today, I hope we will hear more about what progress the Department is making in implementing these changes.

“As I have said before, not every veteran will be affected by these invisible wounds.  But when a veteran has the courage to stand up and ask for help, VA must be there every single time.  VA must be there with not only timely access to care, but also the right type of care.

“This is especially important at a time when 22 veterans per day are taking their own lives.  VA has a number of good initiatives, such as the Veterans Crisis Line and the Suicide Prevention Coordinators, but clearly we still need to do more.

“As you know, women are the fastest growing part of the veteran population.  VA has needed to make major changes to ensure: There is a full range of health services for female veterans, facilities are safe and privacy is protected, and support services are available. The requested $422 million for gender-specific care for women is a 13.7 percent increase over last year.

“I will also continue working to end the terrible epidemic of military sexual assault in the services.  In the coming days, I will introduce legislation to help prevent sexual assault and protect the victims. And at the same time, VA must continue to provide for those suffering from M.S.T. Only a small fraction of sexual assaults in the military are reported.  So VA must provide both the highest quality treatments, but also outreach and screening to help these victims get into care.

“Developing a seamless transition is another challenge that VA and DoD continue to face, though important progress has been made.

“The requirement in the VOW to Hire Heroes Act making the Transition Assistance Program mandatory, along with a major overhaul of the curriculum, has created a much more useful tool to assist servicemembers leaving the military.  The feedback I have received is that even Colonels and Sergeants Major found the training invaluable.  If even those senior leaders are benefiting from the help on resume writing and VA resources, we are doing something right.

“Other requirements, to expand job opportunities and eliminate barriers to getting civilian licenses and credentials, are key to combatting the unemployment rate for veterans which is still far too high. We have made a great deal of progress working with employers to encourage them to hire veterans.  And I will continue to engage our private sector partners, to help them understand the skills veterans bring to the table, and why they make some of the best employees.

“Getting our veterans into education programs, into good jobs, or starting small businesses doesn’t benefit just the veteran.  It helps us grow our economy and the middle class.  It builds on the investments we have made in our veterans, as they continue to help our communities, our businesses, and fellow veterans.

“While we are making these investments in our veterans, we must also continue to invest in VA infrastructure.  I have concerns about the proposed cuts to major construction and non-recurring maintenance.  The Department is proposing a 47 percent cut in non-recurring maintenance, and only $342 million in major construction funding.  This comes while the Department still estimates it has between $54 and $66 billion in infrastructure needs. I was pleased to see the request includes funds to complete work on the mental health building in my home state of Washington at the VA hospital in Seattle.

“Information technology also plays a critical role in many of the Department’s major initiatives.  And it is a key part in giving our servicemembers a truly seamless transition from active duty to civilian life. 

“The President’s Budget Request includes an overall 18 percent increase in I.T. funding for VA.  This request includes a number of important priorities, such as the continued development and implementation of the Veterans Benefits Management System. 

“The request would also fund further development of the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record, which, while implemented regionally, has not yet been rolled out nationwide. However, the recent announcement by VA and DoD that the Departments will no longer pursue development of a single electronic health record, has raised important questions about the future of the iEHR program.

“The Departments must clearly define the path forward for this important project and address the underlying reasons for the program’s abrupt change of course.  VA and DoD must ensure there is clear, strategic leadership to guide further development of the iEHR program.

“In closing, Secretary Shinseki, I want to thank you for your dedication and leadership over the past several years.  It is not easy to steer the Federal Government’s second largest Department.  And it is not easy to make the big changes that are needed. 

“You have set some very ambitious goals including: ending veteran homelessness; breaking the claims backlog; and transforming the way VA delivers health care.

“Setting these high goals is a good thing.  And I am confident you have set these goals because of your continuing demand for excellence on behalf of our nation’s veterans.

“We recognize the good progress that has been made, but we will continue to push you to meet these goals.  So I am looking forward to a constructive discussion about the challenges ahead, the concerns we have, and what we can do to provide the resources and authorities you need.

“I’ll now call on Ranking Member Sessions for his opening statement.”