Washington, DC - Veterans Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices of those who have served this nation in uniform, but it’s also a time to assess the nation’s efforts at keeping President Lincoln’s promise to care for those who have “borne the battle.”
This year, the nation’s leaders have joined together in support of the largest transformation and modernization of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in its history as a Cabinet-level department.
The president and Congress have enacted no fewer than five major pieces of legislation on a range of veterans issues: accountability, whistleblower protection, choice in health care, educational benefits and appeals modernization.
First, in April, President Trump signed into law the Veterans Choice Program Extension and Improvement Act to extend and improve the Choice Program. Then in June, he signed the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, streamlining the disciplinary process and giving VA extra authorities to hold senior leaders and employees accountable for failing to do their duty.
In August, he signed three more new laws benefiting Veterans:
•The VA Choice and Quality Employment Act, expanding VA’s direct-hiring authority to enable us to recruit the very best people, authorizing 28 medical facility leases and providing additional funding needed to continue the Choice Program.
•The Veterans Appeals Improvement and Modernization Act of 2017 to overhaul and modernize our claims appeals process and thereby provide better, faster decisions for veterans.
•The Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, or Forever GI Bill, improving veterans’ educational benefits in nearly a dozen different ways.
We at VA have been hard at work implementing these new laws and many other reforms to ensure that we can continue to care for the nation’s veterans in the decades to come.
We have established the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection to ensure VA takes full advantage of new and existing authorities for disciplining or terminating those few employees who violate the public trust or otherwise fail to do right by veterans.
We have also created a new advisory committee to help us identify new ways of curbing fraud, waste and abuse. One recently-implemented reform requires senior-official signoff on settlement actions over $5,000, to prevent employees from gaming the system for their own financial benefit.
This past summer, VA became the first agency to post information on employee disciplinary actions online and is now the most transparent health system in the country. We are also posting information online about quality, satisfaction and wait times at every one of our 168 medical centers.
Veterans can now see for themselves, at www.accesstocare.va.gov, where wait times are shortest and what other veterans are saying about care at their local VA facilities, so they can make better decisions about where to seek care. No other health system in the country posts its wait times online.
We now have same-day services for primary and mental health care at all of our medical centers. We have made it easier for veterans to file online health-care application forms — so much easier that we’ve received eight times as many online applications this year as last year. And we have introduced a new procedure called Decision Ready Claims that can process some disability claims in just three days.
In June, we initiated the process of replacing our aging VistA electronic health records system with the system already in use by the Department of Defense (DOD). This will ultimately put all patient data in one shared system, enabling seamless transfer of records between VA and DOD without the manual and electronic exchange and reconciliation of data between separate systems.
We are also in the process of disposing of 430 vacant buildings and are reviewing another 784 underutilized buildings for possible disposal. All told, these actions are projected to save nearly $23 million per year.
Last year, VA’s life-saving Veterans Crisis Line had a call roll-over rate that often surpassed 30 percent. Today, that rate averages less than 1 percent. We have also fielded a new predictive modeling tool called REACH VET allowing us to identify and treat veterans at higher risk for suicide, and in September we launched our “Be There” suicide prevention awareness campaign, featuring audio public service announcements narrated by Tom Hanks.
Much more remains to be done — to assist caregivers who care for veterans day in and day out, to expand our use of telehealth technologies to treat more veterans no matter where they live, and to consolidate and rationalize our many community-care authorities into a single veteran- friendly, provider-friendly system offering veterans more choice of quality care.
VA is working with Congress on the Veterans Coordinated Access and Rewarding Experiences (CARE) Act, which would replace the current 30-day/40-mile system with patient/provider decisionmaking based on clinical need and not arbitrary limits on time and distance.
The act would clarify and simplify eligibility requirements, streamline clinical and administrative processes, provide better coordination of care for veterans and set the framework for VA to continue to build a high-performing provider network.
We want veterans to be able to work with their VA physicians to make informed decisions that are best for their clinical needs, whether in the VA or in the community. The CARE Act would do that. Passing it this year would be the best Christmas present Congress could give veterans — and a fitting way to end a year of progress in VA modernization.
This is an exciting time at the Department of Veterans Affairs, where, thanks to the efforts of our hardworking employees and the support of Congress and President Trump, we’ve enacted more reforms in the last several months than perhaps at any other time in recent history.
This Veterans Day, we are redoubling our efforts to continue getting things done on behalf of those who have worn the uniform. Our veterans deserve no less.
David J. Shulkin, M.D., is the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs.