President Barack Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposal is necessary to transform the Department of Veterans Affairs into the 21st century organization he envisions, VA's top official said here yesterday.
VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told the House Armed Services Committee's subcommittee on veterans affairs that the proposed budget is "critical to realizing the president's mission" for future veteran care.
"President Obama has charged me with transforming the VA into a 21st-century organization," Shinseki said. "Not change for the sake of change, not nibbling around the edges, but [to bring] a fundamental and comprehensive view in all that we do for veterans."
The proposal would raise the VA's budget to $112.8 billion for 2010, which is a $15 billion boost from the previous year. The proposal is the largest one-year dollar and percentage increase ever requested by a president for veterans, Shinseki said.
Nearly two-thirds of the $15 billion increase would go to mandatory programs, while the remaining $5.5 billion would be for discretionary funding, he said, noting that the total budget would almost evenly split between mandatory funding at $56.9 billion, and discretionary funding at $55.9 billion.
The 2010 budget proposal would fund the new Post 9/11 GI Bill and allow a gradual expansion of health care eligibility to Priority Group 8 veterans. Priority Group 8 comprises veterans whose injuries are not service-related. This group has been excluded from VA care since 2003, he noted.
The VA expects an expansion of 550,000 new enrollees by 2013, due to the Priority Group 8 veterans, Shinseki said.
"[The budget proposal] contains sufficient resources so that we will maintain our quality of health care for all veterans with no adverse impact on wait times or quality for those already enrolled," he said, noting that the VA's health care system sets the bar for the nation's.
The president's request will provide greater benefits for veterans who are medically retired from active duty and allows highly disabled veterans to receive both their military retired pay and VA disability compensation benefits, he said.
The proposal also supports additional specialty care for aging and homeless veterans, women, mental health and vision issues, and spinal cord injuries. It also will provide an outreach of VA services to rural communities that lack access to care, he said.
Shinseki also addressed the VA's desire to make enrollment and claims easier for veterans by working to go "paperless" and institute a joint venture called "uniform registration" with the Defense Department. The initiatives eventually will create a single electronic record that governs how each department will acknowledge, identify, track and manage its clients in both the active and reserve components, he said.
"From the moment [military members] take the oath of allegiance in uniform, our management decisions will be better, faster, more consistent and fair, and less subject to lost files or destroyed claims," Shinseki said. "We have benefited from the insights and experience and advice of [Defense Department officials], so we are committed to doing this smartly and differently from some of our past hard lessons learned."
The uniform registration initiative also will help control VA's backlogs of claims, he said.
Shinseki called the budget proposal a demonstration of Obama's commitment to the nation's veterans, and a sign that the president is "moving boldly to acknowledge new times, new demographic realities and leveraging new technologies to renew our commitment to veterans wherever they live," he said.
The details of Obama's federal budget proposal are still being assessed, but are expected to be finalized in April for congressional review.
By Army Staff Sgt. Michael J. Carden
American Forces Press Service
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