VA con­tin­ues trans­for­ma­tion but needs con­gres­sional help

Cecil Whig - - & - Robert Mc

— 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

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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.

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