WASHINGTON, April 15 – The Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs today questioned Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki at a hearing on President Barack Obama’s proposed $153 billion budget for the VA in 2014.
Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Shinseki that the overall budget for the department “reflects a strong commitment by this administration to provide veterans and their families with the care and benefits they deserve.” That commitment, he added, is a welcome change from “woefully inadequate” VA budgets in prior administrations.
At the hearing, Shinseki acknowledged a soaring backlog of claims for disability benefits and restated his goal to eliminate the backlog by 2015. Sanders commended the goal but said “VA took too long” to address the “completely unacceptable” backlog. As of today, nearly 70 percent of claims have been pending longer than 125 days. In the future, Sanders added, “VA must do a better job of showing not only the Congress but also veterans and their survivors how it plans to accomplish this ambitious goal.”
In addressing suicide prevention among veterans, Sanders welcomed a 7.2 percent increase in funding for mental health services. “We are all aware of the staggering statistic that up to 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” Sanders said. He supported VA’s commitment to hire more mental health clinicians but questioned whether it would meet its own goal. “VA must pick up the pace of hiring if it intends to meet its goal of 1,600 new clinicians by the end of June.”
Sanders also said he will continue to press the administration to better coordinate health records maintained by the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. He faulted both departments for the slow progress and limited success on a long-planned effort to develop a single electronic health record. “We must ensure that both VA and DoD are working together in an effective and efficient manner,” Sanders said.
Sanders also said he was “deeply disappointed” that the White House budget calls for significant cuts in benefits for disabled veterans and their survivors. Obama proposed a new way to calculate cost-of-living adjustments that would mean that veterans who started receiving disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 at age 45, $2,341 at age 55, and $3,231 at age 65. “Any attempt to balance the budget on the backs of those who served and sacrificed is unacceptable,” Sanders said.
“The challenges that veterans and their families continue to face demonstrate the true cost of war,” Sanders said. “Years of conflict have made a significant impact, not only on the men and women who serve in uniform, but also on their families who provide the tremendous love and support these men and women need to do their jobs.”
To read Sanders’ opening statement, click here.