VA continues transformation but needs congressional help
— In the more than two years I have been secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I have come to appreciate how much the VA means to this nation and its veterans.
The VA is there for veterans when they need health care. The VA is there to help them achieve their educational goals and to purchase their home. And the VA is there to honor their service in eternity at one of our national cemeteries.
We launched the MyVA transformation effort two years ago to improve the veterans experience at the VA. Earlier this week, we released the third iteration of our transformation update, which you can read more
about on the department’s website. While transformation of this magnitude takes years, we have made measurable progress and gained solid momentum. In fact, veterans are telling us they’re feeling the difference. The VA is acting differently, too, as we build a more integrated enterprise and high-performing organization.
MyVA changed our perspective. That’s not just rhetoric. Now we design and evaluate all of our plans and programs through the eyes of veterans _ the very people we are meant to serve. It’s the veteran-centric approach. We brought in new leaders, created a Veterans Experience Office, and added several feedback mechanisms to hear directly from veterans and their families.
We have focused on rebuilding trust, improving access and the quality of care to our veterans, and an- swering the phone quickly and consistently. The results have been dramatic, and 60 percent of veterans surveyed in September trust the VA to fulfill our country’s commitment to them, an increase of 13 points from December 2015. These metrics are encouraging, but we still have much more room for improvement.
The VA has spent the last year focusing on things that make real changes in the lives of veterans. We are rolling out same day access to our medical centers nationwide, so veterans can get care when they need it. We added a second Veterans Crisis Line hub in Atlanta to double our capacity to help veterans in need, so by the end of the year we won’t need to rely on backup call centers. Veterans can enroll for their VA health care more easily now, completely online at vets.gov, without having to print out and mail a form or go to their local hospital. We have reduced the backlog of disability claims by more than 90 percent, and fixed technical issues at our benefits call centers to reduce our dropped call rate from near 50 percent to near zero.
We focused on these things because they were the places that would make the most impact for veterans with the taxpayers’ resources, and while we obviously have more to do, there are other high-impact projects that we can’t do alone. That’s why we’re taking fullest advantage of partnerships across industries to help us serve veterans in new and better ways, partnering with external organizations at an unprecedented rate, including Google, YMCA and BristolMyers Squibb.
But more needs to be done, and we need Congress to do its part. Throughout the past year, I have sent the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees detailed letters outlining urgent legislative actions needed to support and sustain the transformation. These include commonsense changes like consolidating the VA’s care in the community programs to make it easier for veterans to be seen by outside providers, and by authorizing 24 major medical leases that have already been funded to open VA sites of care closer to where veterans live, to name just two.
Only Congress can fix these problems, just as only Congress can modernize our antiquated claims appeals process. We have submitted to Congress a modernization plan developed with the help of veterans service organizations that doesn’t cost the taxpayers another cent, but reduces the waiting period for vet- erans and their families by years. These are important issues that we have heard from veterans and their families, which is why we are working to address them, but these improvements are moot without changes in law from Congress.
This is a large organization, and while some may say that is why we are imperfect, I challenge the next administration to look beyond the headlines to our true potential and accomplishments. We have a dedicated workforce that has the scope and scale to make a difference in veterans’ lives in ways no one else can, and I, a veteran myself, wake up every day ready to leverage that opportunity. Our customers, and the American taxpayers, deserve nothing less. Happy Veterans Day.
Robert McDonald is the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs.