Friday, December 2, 2016

VA Secretary discusses the future as the nation ushers in a new presidential administration

It is the responsibility of the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time. A “top-down” reformation strategy is commendable, and would actually stand a chance of succeeding if, at the same time, a “bottom-up” strategy was also undertaken. If you are inclined to applaud the conversation, below, you are only looking at half the solution in the effort to “fix” the Department of Veterans Affairs. There exists a Culture within this Agency that runs from the very top down to the lowliest paid “V.I.” employee. In order to change this Culture, you must first change the Structure that breeds the Culture. The Congressional Legislation, both passed and proposed, is absolutely necessary, and needs to be expanded even further. Coincidentally, there must be a total restructuring and streamlining of the entire Department to make it less cumbersome. If the whole system is not addressed, the whole system is doomed to self-implode in the very near future. The loss of the Department of Veterans Affairs would most likely have a deleterious effect on the motivation of our youth in their willingness to join the Military. They will realize how drastically our Nation’s Veterans have been mistreated, and they will avoid Military Service like the plague. That will open a dark chapter in our Nation’s history.
VA Secretary discusses the future as the nation ushers in a new presidential administration

Robert A. McDonald was appointed Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in July 2014. Over the last two and a half years, the West Point graduate has led a transformation of the VA from the top down. The first to remark that there is still a long way to go to ensure veterans get the care they've earned, McDonald says he believes they're on the right track. In an interview with DAV, McDonald discussed top legislative priorities and the future of the VA as we move closer to a new presidential administration.
Q: You took the reins at one of the most difficult and controversial times in the VAs history. What progress have you made over the last two years, and what have you found most challenging?
A: McDonald: I think the overall evidence of the transformation underway is the improvement in veteran trust. We've gone from basically 40 percent of veterans trusting the VA to 59 percent. That s really the most challenging thing. How do you gain the trust of veterans while you're doing things like improving access to health care, reducing the backlog of claims, and trying to end veterans homelessness? Particularly at a time when many people have tried the VA already and had a bad experience so they're not going to go back. Getting, in a sense, a retrial is a big challenge.
I would measure [our progress] on the improvement of access. We've made more medical appointments this year versus last year. We’ve added over 1,200 doctors and 2,300 nurses. We’ve expanded clinical hours, added over 2 million square feet of new space and clinics, all designed to improve access to care.
We've brought the VA claims backlog down by about 90 percent, which is a big accomplishment. We've been able to reduce veteran homelessness by about half since 2010, with a 17-percent reduction last year alone. But there's obviously more work to do.
Q: MyVA is a hallmark of your time in this office. How will you ensure the transformation continues into the next administration?
A: McDonald: We've been working really hard to create irreversible momentum. Meaning, no matter what happens in the future, this
trend of transformation and better veteran outcomes will continue. We've tried to change the culture, to put the veteran in the center of everything we do and also improve the experience of employees. All of these things are designed to make sure our progress is irreversible. We're putting together a very thorough transition plan, so the next administration will know what we're doing and why we're doing it.
Q: What improvements have you seen in the past two years in regard to women veterans?
A: McDonald: I think the initiative to improve care for the increasing number of veterans who are women is one of the most important things we can do during my time. Were going from roughly 11 to 12 percent of veterans who are women to as many as 20 percent. What we've been trying to do is put in place individual clinics for women veterans, hire more providers trained in providing care for females and we ve identified female providers at each one of our facilities. These are top priorities for us. We re making progress, but we re obviously going to need to make more.
Q: How essential is it for the VA to be granted a sufficient budget?
A: McDonald; If you look at the Independent Budget that you all come up with, I think you would argue that we have been underfunded for construction and infrastructure by about $9 billion, if I'm not mistaken. Sixty percent of our buildings are over 50 years old. We've got to fund the infrastructure that the VA has. One of the things we've tried to do is put in budgets that have been reflective of our needs. Under President Obama, our budget has gone up 86 percent since he became president, but we still have work to do.
One of the lunacies of all this is we, right now, have 24 leases of clinical space that have been appropriated by Congress, but have not been authorized by our committee. So we can't move on them. Here's an example where Congress has already appropriated a budget but not authorized it. We can t do anything about it. Congress passes the laws that say what benefits we give, and Congress funds that, but when the funding doesn't match the demand, we have problems.
I think my job is to tell the American people what the truth is, and to hold Congress responsible for what only they can do. I'm going to continue to call out the appropriate parties. I'm also glad to be held accountable myself, but if I can t do something without the help of someone else, I'm going to call them out.
Q: Fixing the VA has certainly been a hot topic in the presidential debates. No matter the outcome of the election, what do you feel is most important for the next administration to remember in shaping the future of the department for the coming generations of veterans?
A: McDonald: We can't let political ideology get in the way of transformation. The veterans in this country have spoken with one voice and gotten a lot done over the years, so I would encourage veterans and all veterans service organizations to continue to do that. Do not settle. Veterans should not be political pawns. Veterans have served their country, and they are owed what we've committed to them since the very beginning, before they were sworn in.
Legislative Priority
Background & Explanation
Current Status in Congress (as of 11/1/16)
Appeals Modernization
In order to address a rising backlog of over 450,000 appeals, VA, the Board of Veterans Appeals and VSOs reached agreement on a new framework to streamline and modernize the appeals process.
H.R. 5620 (VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act) passed the House 9/14/16; Similar bills, 3170 & S. 3328, are currently pending in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee (SVAC).
Budget Flexibility
Current budget rules restrict VA's ability to allocate funding to best meet veterans' demand for care, including for care in the community.
Approved by SVAC as part of S. 2921, the Veterans First Act, on 5/12/16; awaiting full Senate approval. Draft legislation pending in the House.
Construction & Leasing
VA has requested authorization to lease, build, expand, and rehabilitate needed medical facilities.
Approved by SVAC as part of S. 2921, awaiting Senate approval. Included in H.R. 5286, pending in House Veterans Affairs Committee (HVAC).
Family Caregiver Support
Legislation is required to allow family caregivers of pre-9/11 veterans to fully participate in the Comprehensive Family Caregiver Support program.
Approved by SVAC as part of S. 2921, awaiting full Senate approval. Similar legislation introduced in the House, HVAC hearing held, but still pending.
Women Veterans
As women veterans increasingly look to VA for earned services and benefits, Congress must pass new legislation to access and remove barriers.
Legislation was introduced but remains pending in both the Senate (S. 471) and the House (H.R, 1356, H.R. 1575, H.R. 1948, H.R. 2054).

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