By Nick Simeone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 25, 2012 – Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki warned Congress today that looming budget cuts as well as the surge of troops returning from a decade of wars will further challenge the government’s ability to provide for veterans in a timely manner.
Both testified before a joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and the Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Panetta told lawmakers troop drawdowns as well as the impact of wars over the last decade will, for years to come, place additional strain on an already burdened system charged with caring for veterans.
"We’re going to be adding another hundred thousand per year. And the ability to be able to respond to that in a way that effectively deals with the heath care issues, with the benefits issues, with all of the other challenges, that is not going to be an easy challenge," he said, adding that the current system is already "overwhelmed."
Shinseki, whose agency is attempting to process a backlog of veterans’ claims within a bureaucracy that he described as still largely unautomated and "paperbound," further laid out the daunting task ahead.
"Our history suggests that VA’s requirements will continue growing for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are ended," he said. "Over the next five years, there is the potential for 1 million serving men and women to either leave military service or demobilize from active duty." Of the roughly 1.4 million veterans who have returned from both wars, nearly 70 percent, he said, currently rely on the VA.
Rep. Howard McKeon of California, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, noted if an additional round of draconian budget cuts known as "sequestration" takes effect next year, 100,000 additional service personnel will be leaving the military and likely would add to the strain on resources that DOD and VA are providing to current veterans.
Shinseki told lawmakers he has been informed that VA would be largely exempt from sequestration, and that only "administrative costs" would be affected. He told the panel he doesn’t yet have a definition of administrative costs, and he offered to provide that information later.
Sequestration is a federal budget maneuver written into legislation passed last year that raised the U.S. debt ceiling. Unless lawmakers take action to prevent it, the measure will slash spending across the federal budget beginning in January, taking an additional $500 billion from defense accounts. Panetta has said the cuts would be a disaster, and told lawmakers today that such a move would make it "near impossible" to do the kind of work the departments are trying to do.