The Oct. 3 front-page article "Influx of Wounded Strains VA," about the Department of Veterans Affairs, was misleading in tone and factually inaccurate.
Rep. Lane Evans (D-Ill.) was dead wrong in his assertion that my department is underfunded and unprepared. The story's assertion that the VA fiscal 2005 budget cuts 500 claims examiners' jobs was also wrong. While there may be a small reduction in the Veterans Benefits Administration, we will have added more than 1,300 claims processors since I took office in 2001.
The story erred in calling the VA's workload inventory of more than 300,000 claims a "backlog." At any given time, more than 250,000 claims are being processed; we receive over 60,000 every month. We have greatly improved service for veterans since 2001. The inventory of pending claims is down from a high of 432,000. We have increased the number of claims decisions we make in a month from about 40,000 to about 70,000.
With respect to Staff Sgt. Gene Westbrook's case, we had already reached a decision on his claim, which will be awarded the day he is discharged from the Army. Robert Acosta's case is being reviewed to ensure that he receives 100 percent of the benefits and services he has earned.
The VA and the Defense Department have initiatives to provide military members with a "seamless transition" from active duty to VA benefits and health care systems. VA employees now work at 136 military bases. They counsel service members about their VA benefits and help those approaching discharge file for benefits before they hang up their uniforms.
For the first time, VA staffers are positioned at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany to ensure that combat-wounded heroes know who their VA health care and benefits case workers will be long before they enter the VA system.
Further, we are committed to our new veterans and have expanded the array of benefits for them:
* In 2001, facing a backlog of claims from some of our oldest veterans, whose cases had languished for years, I dedicated staffers (a "Tiger Team") to decide their claims immediately.
* In 2001, we published regulations automatically making Vietnam veterans with diabetes eligible for disability compensation because of their exposure to Agent Orange.
* This month, I announced that the VA would automatically provide disability compensation and health care to former prisoners of war suffering from common heart illnesses and strokes.
* Last year, we did the same for those Persian Gulf War veterans suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.
* And we are providing health care to a million more veterans today than when I took office in 2001.
My concern is that we provide the benefits and services that all veterans, especially those wounded in combat, need. President Bush, working with Congress, has given us the resources to do so.
ANTHONY J. PRINCIPI
Secretary of Veterans Affairs