By Sgt 1st Class Doug Sample, USA. AFPS

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2003 — Secretary Anthony Principi made bold claims today on underway initiatives to transform the second largest federal department in the nation, promising veterans and America that the “Veterans Affairs will not be found wanting.”

Speaking before the National Press Club here, Principi said when President Bush named him to the helm of the VA three years ago, “He directed me to take whatever steps were necessary to improve VA's health care and our benefits-delivery systems.”

For example, to ensure that veterans receive prompt decisions on their disability claims, he said the VA has revamped its system to eliminate the ordeal of waiting “year after year” for a decision on their claims.

“Last year our inventory for what we call rating-related claims — claims for disability compensation, pension for a wartime veteran, low income, a death gratuity — peaked at 432,000,” he said. “The department averaged 60,000 more new or reopened claims every month, and we were able to get the number of cases in our inventory down to 253,000.”

In addition, the VA claims representatives now visit with newly wounded service members in the hospital, informing them of their benefits, such as disability compensation; vocational rehabilitation, if they choose to go back to school, for which they are eligible. “And we have social workers in the military hospitals helping newly wounded soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen plan a future course of treatment for their injuries in VA hospitals when they get back home,” Principi noted.

“If these heroes are discharged from the service because of their disabilities, we will link them and their medical records up with the VA medical center closest to their home that will continue to provide them with the care after their discharge.”

VA has set up teams of claims representatives and social workers serving Fort Gordon, Ga.; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash.; and all key DoD processing points for seriously injured troops.

Principi said that each medical center and benefits office has points of contact to work with service members and veterans from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. He said “many are enrolled in the VA system even before they are discharged from the military.

“We have trained tens of thousands of our hospital employees to treat the anticipated health needs of this new cohort of veterans,” he added. “Two new research centers for the study of war-related illnesses and injuries will also be established, and the department has developed new clinical practice guidelines to assist VA physicians and nurses in restoring veterans to their highest possible levels of functioning.”

“Men and women who sacrifice limbs in freedom's cause will be well served by the world's best robotic and prosthetic laboratories,” he emphasized. “The VA wants to eliminate the puzzling questioning that often accompanies the claim filing process.”

“When a wounded or injured veteran from Iraqi Freedom or Enduring Freedom contacts VA for care, our question cannot be, 'Are you still on active duty? Do you have your discharge papers?' I simply do not want to hear those kinds of questions. The only question that should be asked of any man or woman on active duty is, 'How can we help you now? We'll sort out the paperwork later.'”

“We know that young veterans who are injured or become ill in combat have never dealt with VA before, and that they likely don't understand our procedures or know the benefits available to them.”

Other initiatives he included were the VA regional offices calling seriously wounded veterans to help them with their disability claims. The offices will aid veterans with grants to adapt homes and cars to their disabilities. Offices will also assist with applications for home and education loans, vocational rehabilitation, or life insurance benefits, he noted.

“Many disabled veterans are eligible for vocational rehabilitation that will help them learn a new trade, a new vocation, send them back to school, pay for all of their tuition and a monthly stipend,” Principi said.

He also stated that service members will receive service-connected disability compensation more quickly than in the past. VA has established benefits-delivery-at-discharge programs at 136 military installations around the country. “This will make it more convenient for separating service members to receive the benefits they've earned,” he said.

Another move by the department is to assign VA rating specialists and VA physicians to military bases, where a service member can literally walk across the street from his or her barracks or duty assignment, file a claim for disability compensation, see a physician, and have their claim decided even before receiving their DD 214 discharge papers.

“They do not have to wait until after they're discharged,” he said. “They can actually get this all done before they leave active duty. That's the kind of service that they have earned and that we must provide to them.”

But, Principi also cited overwhelming growth in just about all areas of the VA healthcare system. He noted that this year VA will treat 1 million more veterans than it did in 2000, that veterans will make 50 million outpatient visits to one of its facilities, up from 40 million from 2000. The VA has also seen an increase in the number of prescriptions filled per year from 86 million to 108 million, he said. And the expected enrollment for VA health care will grow to 7.1 million veterans this year, up from 4.8 million in 2000, “2.3 million more than just a short time ago.”

“In 1998, the VA was only treating about 2.9 million veterans. This year, we're about 5 million veterans. Still, the department and the 226,000 employees hold the power and bear the responsibility to transform the words of countless Veterans Day speeches into the benefits and services all veterans have earned while in service to our great country.”

Principi told reporters that he and his wife were both Vietnam War vets, and that two of his sons served in Iraq. He said he cares “very deeply and very personally about every man and woman who returns to our shores from combat.”

“I want to assure every service member returning from the war against terrorism that VA will be there for them when they return to civilian life.”