By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 30, 2012 – Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki offered assurances that VA will make good on its promises to veterans and those currently serving in uniform, despite growth in demand for its services and benefits and federal belt-tightening initiatives.
Shinseki sat with American Forces Press Service during the 26th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic this week in Snowmass Village, Colo., to discuss VA’s $140.3 billion budget request for fiscal 2013 and what it means for those who serve or have served in uniform.
With a 4.5 percent increase in discretionary funding over fiscal 2012 funding levels, Shinseki said it sends a clear message to the nation’s 22 million living veterans. "The nation honors and appreciates their service," he said. "It has not forgotten and will not forget."
The funding increases will go primarily toward medical care, disability pay and pensions, jobs and educational and training programs. They also will help build momentum in three priority areas Shinseki has identified: increasing access to care, benefits and services; eliminating the disability claims backlog; and ending veterans’ homelessness.
Shinseki said the budget request — up from $99.9 billion when he arrived at VA in 2009 — was an easy sell to President Barack Obama, who he said has been a staunch advocate of veterans.
"He gets it, both that sense of obligation, and a responsibility to ensure that these men and women we have sent off to do the nation’s business have an opportunity to get back to some kind of normalcy in their lives, and that VA is responsible for carrying that load," Shinseki said of the President’s support for veterans.
The VA’s workload is anticipated to grow, Shinseki said, with an estimated 1 million service members expected to leave the military during the next five years. And based on the experience of 1.4 million veterans of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan who have left the military as of September, he said the newest veterans will be twice as likely as those from previous generations to take advantage of VA services and benefits.
Shinseki noted that 67 percent of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have come to VA for services or benefits ranging from health care to insurance, home mortgages and Post-9/11 G.I. Bill education. That’s a far-higher percentage than for previous generations, he said, noting that roughly 8.8 million, or about one-third of all 22 million living U.S. veterans, are enrolled with the VA.
"So looking down the road, that percentage is going to be pretty significant," he said.
In some respects, VA has become a victim of its own successes and what Shinseki called a "very aggressive" outreach effort to encourage veterans to take advantage of VA programs. "In the last three years, we have pushed very hard to get the message out," he said. It’s been a two-prong effort, he added, to educate new veterans, and to "reach out to those who may have tried us and been disappointed in the past to say, ‘This is a new VA. Give us another try.’"
The message has clearly resonated, with about 800,000 new veterans enrolling with VA over the past three years and beginning to take advantage of its services.
"As a result, we have been able to present what I think is a good argument for why VA’s budget needed to be reinforced, Shinseki said.
The VA budget request includes $52.7 billion for medical care, up 4.1 percent. VA officials estimate that 6.3 million veterans will use its health care services, including about 610,000 veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The request includes $6.2 billion for mental-health, up 5.3 percent from current levels. VA will use the additional funding to conduct more outreach and screenings, better address post-traumatic stress disorder and enhance programs that reduce the stigma of seeking mental-health care, officials said.
The budget also will fund expanded gender-specific care for women veterans and medical research focusing on traumatic brain injury, suicide prevention, PTSD and other needs, officials reported.
New funding in the 2013 budget request, officials said, will help veterans prepare for and secure jobs, building on a national program that includes tax credits for employers, corporate hiring pledges, job fairs and other initiatives.
The budget request will cover Post-9/11 GI Bill educational benefits for an estimated 606,000 service members, veterans and family members during fiscal 2013, officials said. A separate funding increase of $9 million would expand the "VetSuccess on Campus" program from 28 college campuses to 80 to provide outreach and supportive services for about 80,000 veterans transitioning from the military to college.
Meanwhile, VA’s vocational rehabilitation and employment program will expand services to wounded, ill and injured service members to ease their transition to civilian life, officials said. Program participants are expected to increase from 108,000 in fiscal 2011 to 130,000 next fiscal year.
The budget request proposes $1 billion over five years for a Veterans Job Corp. This effort, projected to put 20,000 veterans to work, would leverage military-acquired skills for jobs protecting and rebuilding U.S. public lands.
Shinseki said VA and the Defense Department are collaborating better than ever before to ensure a smoother transition from the military to VA-assisted ranks.
A task force that blends both departments’ expertise is exploring ways to improve transition assistance programs and weave health care, employment, education and entrepreneurship offerings into them. The idea, Shinseki explained, is to put transitioning service members "on a vector to that next phase of their lives, as opposed to the uniform coming off and then having them ask the question, ‘What am I going to do now?’"
The goal, he said, is to gear transition assistance programs toward providing veterans "a clear set of choices," that both departments can help support.
Shinseki noted other areas where the close DOD-VA partnership already is helping service members and their families and veterans. VA is the insurer for everyone in the military carrying Servicemembers Group Life Insurance. VA administers Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for service members and their families as well as veterans. VA hospitals already provide specialized care to many active-duty patients.
"So the connection is there," Shinseki said. "And I want all service members and their families to understand that we are there for them, and that is our only mission."