We have over 23.7 million veterans in our nation. Of these, nearly six million use Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare, over three million receive disability compensation, and 800,000 utilize VA education benefits. Sadly, some 60,000 veterans are homeless and 900,000 are unemployed.

In joining our military, these men and women received promises to care for their needs. These are benefits they have earned on the frontiers of freedom and on the battlefield. We are all united in a special obligation to these heroes.

Everyone in Congress shares the goal of improving how the VA works for our veterans. Although filled with dedicated professionals, the VA sometimes loses sight of its mission. The VA is troubled with an unmanageable backlog, extremely long wait lists, and a poor record on oversight.
Although the overall backlog and number of claims have steadily declined from its all-time high of 919,461 claims, I remain concerned about the VA’s ability to deliver timely healthcare benefits with its current management challenges and an inevitable increase to our veteran population as we drawdown our troops overseas.

Top executives at the VA were receiving bonuses even with this record of poor performance. Senior Executive Services employees receive salaries ranging from $120,000 to $180,000 a year, and an amendment I offered to end these bonuses was approved in the House this year. Surely, those dollars could be put to better use directly benefiting our veterans.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 provides $51.2 billion for veterans’ healthcare, an increase of 5.3 percent over the previous fiscal year’s level. These services cover the spectrum of needs: primary and specialized care, hospitalization, local clinical care, and prosthetics.

The VA Committee has examined the best way to provide healthcare for veterans, focusing on improving access, and looking for opportunities to expand the delivery of quality care. The House VA Committee took up consideration of H.R. 2646, the Veterans Health Care Facilities Capital Improvement Act.

This measure contained key corrections to the medical facilities of the VA, significant construction and expansion projects, and authorized VA leases for outpatient clinics around the nation. The VA Committee carefully reviewed each project to ensure that each merited support and were requested by the VA. The Senate joined in approving this measure, which the president signed.

Our nations’ homeless veteran population is another issue that needs our immediate attention and plan for action. In 2009, the VA initiated a Five Year Plan to End Homelessness among our veterans by 2015, and since then, has obligated significant resources to reach that goal.

For instance, in FY 2013, the VA is expected to utilize $1.4 billion for specific programs to prevent and reduce homelessness and $4.4 billion for direct medical care for homeless veterans. Furthermore, in the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Appropriations bill, $75 million was allocated to provide 10,000 vouchers to assist homeless veterans throughout this country. According to the VA, these initiatives have shown positive signs with data showing a reduction with homeless veterans of approximately 154,000 in2008 to 76,000 in 2009, to 67,500 in 2011.

As unemployment still affects many in this country, our veterans returning home from service need jobs not promises. There are nearly 900,000 unemployed veterans in the United States and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for all veterans stood at 6.7 percent, lower than the national rate. However, for post-9/11 veterans, the unemployment rate is higher, 9.7 percent.

A surge of men and women returning from overseas face a fiercely competitive job market. Yet, veterans have much to offer an employer: leadership, organizational skills, dedication, and patience. I add my voice to those who want to promote the means to transfer the skills learned in the military to civilian employment.

That is why the VA Committee advanced H.R. 2433, the Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) Act, a bipartisan bill enacted as part of H.R. 674 last year. This law addresses the issue of transferring military skills with a demonstration project that requires the Department of Labor to select five military occupational specialties with skills that are transferrable to high-growth civilian industries. The Labor Department then must work with a coalition of federal, state, and private entities to determine what military skills, training, and experience may align with requirements for civilian credentials, certifications, and licenses.

In overcoming impediments among state regulations and laws preventing veterans from applying for open positions using the skills learned in the military, the VOW Act also asks the states to review their licensing and credentialing laws to help service-members transition into the civilian workforce.

These issues are among the top priorities of the VA Committee. We accomplished many things to help our veterans in this Congress, but we also know that more needs to be done to fulfill our obligation. Freedom is never free.

Stearns is a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.