Vets Group Challenges Shinseki to Beef Up Budget, Staff

A variety of factors will add to the pressure on VA’s patient load. Congress just awarded veterans who deploy five years of free health care after they leave service; more people are seeking mental health help; VA is catching more problems by screening veterans for brain injuries and mental health issues; and President Barack Obama just announced a troop surge in Afghanistan.

VA’s 2010 budget proposal is due out in April, and new VA Secretary Eric Shinseki will have to break his department’s habit of budgeting low and claiming it can make do with what it has if he wants to impress the veterans groups that have been pushing for more funding since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

“He will have to streamline processes,” said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense. “He needs to hire more staff. He needs to ask for more money. He needs to remove top leaders who are bogging down the claims process.”

In his confirmation hearing in January, Shinseki said he planned to come up with a “credible budget” and acknowledged that VA needs to move past barriers to care, such as backlogs and too few doctors. “I intend to be a forceful advocate for veterans,” he said at the time.

After filing several Freedom of Information Act requests with VA and the Defense Department, as well as gaining information from lawsuits against VA, Veterans for Common Sense issued the report “Looking Forward: The Status and Future of VA.”

“VA has repeatedly sat in front of Congress and said, ‘We are sufficiently resourced.’ And Congress says, ‘You keep telling us that; tell us what you need.’ People kept asking us for more information about what’s needed.”

The report, Sullivan said, gives legislators the data they need to ask specific questions and get specific answers.

“If [Shinseki] doesn’t take advantage of this golden moment to address these problems, the door will close,” Sullivan said. “If Congress hadn’t forcibly pumped money into VA over the past few years, VA’s crises would have already become a catastrophe.”

According to a report by Veterans for Common Sense:

• In January, VA had a backlog of 625,000 disability claims.

• Those claims take an average of six months to process, with post-traumatic stress disorder cases taking longer.

• As of September, VA had treated more than 400,000 patients from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Of those, 105,000 were diagnosed with PTSD.

• Of those 105,000, about 25 percent had to wait more than 30 days to see a doctor.

• In 2008, 12,000 veterans in VA care attempted suicide — about 33 a day.

• There were 154,000 homeless vets in 2008, according to VA.

• The Rand Corp. has estimated that 320,000 vets are at-risk for traumatic brain injuries, and another 338,000 will need to be treated for PTSD or depression.

• Among VA patients from the current wars, 45 percent had one or more mental conditions.

• If the wars were to end today, VA should plan for 750,000 patients from among the 1.83 million people who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

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