Late Breaking News
VA's Proposed FY14 Budget Includes 10.2% Increase Over Last Year
By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON - The president’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget is “a strong budget” that will allow VA to continue to make progress in some key longterm goals, Secretary Eric Shinseki told lawmakers last month.
The budget, he said, will help VA increase veterans’ access to its benefits and services, eliminate the claims backlog in 2015 and end veterans’ homelessness in 2015.
“These were bold and ambitious goals then; they remain bold and ambitious goals today,” he said, speaking of the goals established four years ago.
Shinseki made his comments at a hearing in which President Barack Obama’s proposed FY 2014 budget for VA was presented. According to the VA, the $152.7 billion budget introduced last month includes $66.5 billion in discretionary spending, most of which is for healthcare, and $86.1 billion for mandatory programs — representing a total 10.2% increase over FY 2013.
“This budget will have a positive impact on the lives of veterans, their families and survivors for generations to come,” Shinseki said in a written statement. “The president believes in veterans and their families and believes in providing them the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserve.”
Chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) said his initial reaction to the proposed budget was “mixed.”
“On one hand, we see a proposed 4.3% increase in discretionary spending amidst what most would say is a stagnant or declining budget request for other agencies, most which have, unlike VA, have had to absorb sequester cuts and that demonstrates that VA funding is clearly a priority in a very tight fiscal climate,” he said. “On the other hand, I am concerned that we are not really seeing the results for the money that Congress has provided to VA over the last years.”
Specifically, he charged that performance “does not match the dollars” when it comes to the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Backlog Worse than Ever
“Despite already high record investments in technology, record numbers of employees available to process claims, the situation is worse today than it has ever been before,” Miller said.
In terms of the backlog, the current budget proposal requests $291 million to “bring leading-edge technology to the claims backlog,” including $136 million for the Veterans Claims Intake Program (VCIP); and $155 million for the next generation of the electronic claims processing system Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS). The VA has a goal to eliminate the claims backlog and process all claims within 125 days with 98% accuracy in 2015.
Shinseki acknowledged that “too many veterans wait too long to receive benefits they deserve,” telling lawmakers “We know this is unacceptable. And no one wants to turn this situation around more than the workers at our Veterans Benefits Administration. Fifty-two percent of them are veterans themselves.”
Shinseki said improvements have been made to the process and that more than 2,100 processors have completed training to improve the quality and productivity of claims decisions. He also said there are now three lanes for processing claims.
In addition, the VBMS will make the process faster and all 56 of its offices will be using the paperless processing system by the end of this year, he said.
Veterans’ groups weighed in on the claims issue in the budget. Disabled American Veterans Assistant National Legislative Director Jeffrey Hall told the committee in written testimony that it is important that VA does not “stop or change direction” when it comes to switching to a paperless claims system.
“It is absolutely essential that VBA complete transformation from an outdated, paper-based claims system to a modern, paperless, automated claims system,” he testified in writing.
He further wrote that he believes there “has been sufficient progress to merit continued support of the current transformation efforts.”
Louis Celli, the legislative director for The American Legion, said in written testimony that his organization believes VA “must develop a processing model that puts as much emphasis on accuracy as it does on the raw number of claims completed.”
“Nowhere does VA publicly post its accuracy figures. America’s veterans need to have confidence in the work done by VA and that requires transparency,” he said in written testimony.
Celli said the new VBMS system “could allow VA to develop more effective means of processing claims, such as the ability to separate single issues that are ready to rate, starting a flow of relief to veterans while more complex medical issues are considered and decided.”