March 2, 2011
Good morning, Madam Chairman, and congratulations on your new position as Chairman of this Committee. I look forward to working with you and with all of our members in improving the lives of our nation’s veterans, their families, and their survivors.
Secretary Shinseki, welcome to you and your senior leadership team. And welcome to the representatives of the Veterans Service Organizations and the American Federation of Government Employees.
We are here today to review the President’s budget request for the Department of Veterans Affairs for fiscal year 2012.
In a time of record high debt and deficits, my priority is not only to ensure that veterans of every generation receive the care and benefits they need and deserve but also to analyze every area of the budget to ensure we maximize all options to spend the taxpayer’s money wisely. As President Obama states in his Budget Message, “Even in areas outside the freeze, we are looking for ways to save money and cut unnecessary costs.”
The fiscal year 2012 Veterans Affairs budget requests an 11% increase over the 2010 enacted level in discretionary spending.
In examining the VA budget request, one observation I have is the growth over the last 2 years in the budget of the staff offices in your D.C central office. If this budget were to be approved, both the funding levels and the number of staff will have grown at a very high rate since 2010. The general administration budget has increased 13% since 2010 and the staff – or FTE’s -- request for 2012 reflects a 20% increase.
This large boost in spending led me to take a closer look at the FTE requests of the individual offices within general administration. Here is what I found:
· A two-year staffing increase of 7% for the Office of the Secretary;
· A two-year staffing increase of 34% for the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs; and
· A two-year staffing increase of 44% for the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs.
Other examples of spending we may want to take a closer look at include: VA continuing to operate and publish a law review that has articles and book reviews and the hiring of a speech writer for an Assistant Secretary.
How are these funding increases essential to our nation’s veterans? Do these additional staff directly benefit the veteran who uses the VA system?
Another item I found very interesting is the $1 billion contingency fund in the Medical Services account, which would essentially provide a buffer in case poor economic conditions drive up demand for VA services. This caught my eye because of the first lines of the President’s Budget Message: “America is emerging from the worst recession in generations. In 2010, an economy that had been shrinking began to grow again.” What I find interesting is the seemingly difference of opinion on the strength of the economy between the President and VA.
The Medical Care Collections Fund – or MCCF -- is of particular interest to me. Recently, VA’s Chief Business Officer informed my staff VA was downgrading what it was expecting to collect in 2012 from $3.1 billion to $2.8 billion. I am interested to learn more about this sudden change in the collections forecast and the actuarial model being used.
I am also interested to know whether we are collecting everything VA is owed under MCCF. When my staff asked VA what percentage of available money is being collected, the Chief Business Officer could not give them a definitive answer. While VA has done an excellent job in recent years collecting what it forecasts, is there money being left on the table?
Another concern is the claims backlog. Veterans from North Carolina and across the country can wait far too long for decisions that too often are wrong. For years, the primary response to these problems has been to add more staff. In fact, since 2001, claims processing staff has more than doubled. But the problems of large backlogs and long delays continue. And they are expected to get even worse next year.
Although I appreciate that VA is now focusing on IT improvements and other initiatives -- rather than simply adding more staff -- new ideas and good intentions are not enough. We must make sure VA has the tools and resources it needs to succeed in these efforts. More importantly, we must make sure there is a realistic, comprehensive plan to get the backlog under control, so veterans and their families will not face delays or frustrations in accessing their VA benefits. I look forward to a productive discussion today about whether this budget would bring us closer to that reality.
In the end, we need to ask ourselves if spending money on bureaucrats, speech writers, and publishing book reviews are consistent with being good stewards of the taxpayer’s money. More importantly, we should ask ourselves if we are fulfilling President Lincoln’s promise: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
Thank you Madam Chairman, I yield back.