The American Legion attended a luncheon on Nov. 6 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to hear U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin speak about improving the effectiveness and future of VA’s health-care system for the nation’s veterans.
“Each day of this month, we have something special that is going to be announced or an activity that’s going to happen,” Shulkin said. “You’ll see things like, for the first time, a national ID card for veterans being rolled out. You’ll see the president’s White House hotline, the 24/7 hotline answered by veterans and military families, that will be rolled out in the month of November. An expansion of a new national cemetery in Los Angeles. A public service announcement is going out across the country this month, narrated by Tom Hanks, on reducing veteran suicide.”
When it comes to VA’s transformation and modernization, Shulkin said he’s proud that everything the department is doing through Congress is being done in a partisan way.
“We’ve had for the first time a new bill with authorities for accountability. We’ve seen an expansion of the GI Bill, called the Forever GI Bill,” he said. “We’ve seen two bills, not only expanding options for care in the community, but also investments in the VA with 28 new leases. And we’ve seen appeals modernization which hasn’t happened since the 1930s.”
According to Shulkin, VA is also seeing progress on the five priorities that he stated are most important to him as the secretary, including giving veterans more choice about how and where they get their care and benefits.
Shulkin said such progress creates a more responsive and accountable system for veterans in the long run.
“We’ve seen progress in our timeliness of services, in our wait times that now are publicly posted for everybody to see how long it takes to get appointments,” he said. “We still are the only health-care system in the country that publicly posts its wait times. And we now post data showing that VA actually does better than the private sector in wait times. Maybe that’s why they don’t post their wait times.”
In an effort to modernize VA, Shulkin said the department will be using a new electronic medical record similar to one used by the Department of Defense. Nearly 1,100 vacant and underutilized VA facilities will be disposed of as well.
“The fourth priority is we’re going to focus more on those things that matter most to veterans – what we call foundational services (or) conditions that veterans are impacted on in their connection to service,” he said. “You’re going to see VA investing in more of those services and not as much in services that can be accessed easily in the private sector.”
Furthermore, Shulkin noted that VA is working in ways that it never has before to get the number of veteran suicides down significantly.
“Twenty veterans a day (are) taking their life (and it’s) really unacceptable that that is still happening,” Shulkin said. “We have to focus benefits on enabling independence so veterans can succeed on their own because that’s what I think leads toward feeling a sense of well-being.”
Shulkin believes VA should be a system that focuses on veterans’ abilities and not their disabilities. He said there needs to be more incentives for veterans so they can achieve the independence and wellness that they deserve.
“This is not about taking away benefits from veterans,” he said. “This is about making benefits work better for veterans, and in transforming the Department of Veterans Affairs to do better for years and for generations, for future veterans. I think they deserve no less than that.”