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VA budget request signals commitment to vets

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's $132 billion 2012 budget request for the Veterans Affairs Department demonstrates that despite a tight fiscal environment, the U.S. officials stand by their commitment to men and women who have served in uniform, Deputy VA Secretary W. Scott Gould told American Forces Press Service.

"It says that VA and veterans are the president's top priority," Gould said during an interview in Snowmass Village, Colo., last week at the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

Gould said the budget request reflects a renewed commitment to VA's charter as President Abraham Lincoln enunciated it in his second inaugural address: "to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan."

"If you look at our fiscal year 2010 budget, it was the largest in 30 years," Gould said. "It was followed by another roughly 7 and a half percent in 2011, and now we have another 3 and a half percent on top of that. So it is a striking level of investment by the administration."

Gould cautioned, however, that VA can't take this commitment for granted. "We are working really hard to make sure we use every dollar wisely," he said.

The fiscal 2012 budget request supports VA's five-year strategic plan, with priority goals to:

-- End veteran homelessness by 2015, with $940 million in the fiscal 2012 request for programs to reduce and prevent homelessness among veterans and their families;

-- Implement a paperless claims-processing system by 2012, a major step toward eliminating the disability claims backlog so no veteran has to wait more than 125 days for a decision;

-- Build and deploy an automated Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits system to speed tuition and housing payments for all eligible veterans;

-- Create the next-generation electronic record system that begins when service members enlist in the military and remains with them through retirement or after they return to civilian life;

-- Improve the quality, access and value of mental health care provided, with $6.2 million in the fiscal 2012 request for mental health programs, including $68 million for suicide prevention; and

-- Deploy a new management program to improve client access to VA services and benefits by June 2012.

"We have a very bold strategy," Gould said. "And we are very focused on making sure that we get the resources to support it in a way that ties the budget to this strategic strategy."

Much of VA's focus is on making the organizational changes and systems improvements required for it to function more efficiently and effectively, Gould said.

"We want to invest in the people, their training and the systems that make our organization more intelligent, more able to deliver on the promise of these priorities and the overall strategy," he explained.

VA is working to transform into Secretary Eric K. Shinseki's vision of a veteran-centric, results-driven, forward-looking organization, Gould said.

This, Gould said, involves new management systems that ensure accountability as well as maximum efficiency and effectiveness, while eliminating waste and improving the delivery of high-quality and timely veterans benefits and services. Toward that end, VA is seeking nearly $3.2 billion for fiscal 2012 to maintain and improve its information technology systems.

Gould reported progress already made on the IT front. "Two years ago, only 20 percent of projects were on time, on budget and to technical standards," he said. "Today, 80 percent are."

Similar improvements are bearing fruit in how VA manages its human resources. "Two years ago when we started hiring people, it took us 108 days," Gould said. "Now we have it down to 76, and will achieve a goal by the year's end of 60 days, the private-sector standard."

Another improvement uses strategic sourcing, with VA's separate operating units pooling their buying power to get the best price for their goods and services. Previously, the department's separate operating units did their buying separately.

In addition, VA adopted a strategic capital investment plan that improves the way it manages its capital infrastructure -- 6,500 buildings nationwide, with a replacement value of $87 billion.

"Two years ago, there was no integrated process for evaluating where you would invest your next dollar in that physical infrastructure," Gould said. Today, VA makes a business case for every proposal, pools these proposals, then evaluates and prioritizes them to identify the best use of its infrastructure funding.

"So now we can go to the secretary and say, 'For the limited dollars we have, here is the best investment we can make to improve the security and safety of our veterans and improve quality and access,'" Gould said.

Gould noted an adage in the health care realm: health care is 85 percent business systems and 15 percent medicine.

The VA's health-care providers, who make up the country's largest direct-care health system, receive consistently high marks in the quality of care they provide, he said. In fact, he added, many are on par with their counterparts at the nation's most prestigious hospitals and medical centers.

"So think about how much cost [savings] and how much potential efficiency is created if you can improve the underlying systems" that support them, Gould said, "while giving the doctors the maximum freedom to make the best judgment they can based on health care principles."