VA secretary notes improvements spearheaded by Legion

The Department of Veterans Affairs has improved the quality of care while reducing wait times, VA Secretary David Shulkin told 9,000 American Legion Family members Wednesday morning in Reno, Nev.

“Our major priority this fall is to get the Choice Program working in a way that works better for you, takes out the red tape, takes out the complexity and changes it from a system based on an administrator to a system that functions in a clinical way, the way it should function,” Shulkin said. “That will give veterans greater choice over their care. We’re going to eliminate the 40-mile, 30-day requirement. That doesn’t make sense for people who want to get health care.”

Shulkin cited Choice as one example of how VA is working to improve for veterans. “(Choice) is fundamentally important,” he said. “It’s our primary strategy of how we are going to make the VA a better place, to make it more competitive. When people want to get services from you, it makes you want to get better.”

He credited the Legion for helping usher in five major new pieces of legislation that benefit veterans, including the updated GI Bill, VA accountability, Choice legislation and VA appeals modernization.

“The American Legion does fantastic work,” the secretary said. “It’s an amazing organization and I love working with The American Legion.”

Providing greater choice for veterans is one of five major priorities that Shulkin created to improve VA. The four others are:

Modernizing VA: Under this initiative, Shulkin included infrastructure improvements. He noted that there were more than 400 VA facilities dating back to the Civil or Revolutionary wars.

“Too many of our facilities are getting old and in disrepair,” he said. “We are going to be disposing of 1,100 facilities that are vacant or underutilized and reinvesting those resources back into facilities that veterans are being cared for right now. That will allow us to rebuild and to modernize our VA.”

Improving timeliness of services: Referring to the wait-time crisis in Phoenix from a few years ago, Shulkin said, “That can never happen again.” His goal: “Making sure that every veteran with an urgent critical need never has to wait for care.”

Shulkin also noted that the timeliness of appeals must be improved, saying that the recent bill to address this modernizes legislation that had not been updated since before World War II began. He said that in March 2013, there were more than 611,000 claims that had been backlogged over 125 days, compared with just over 92,400 as of this past June.

Focusing resources more effectively: Shulkin noted that since President Trump was inaugurated, there have been 500 VA employees removed from their positions. “We are no longer going to tolerate employees who do not share the values that we share; that it is an honor and a privilege to serve our veterans,” Shulkin said. “We’re moving those people out of the VA because they have lost their right to work in the VA.”

He also emphasized the need to focus on medical care that is not as prevalent in the private sector, such as treatment for PTSD and TBI. “We’re actually moving more money into those programs, doubling down on those strategies to really build world-class facilities across the country for things that matter to our veterans,” the secretary said.

Addressing suicide prevention: Calling the 22 daily suicides by veterans, “a public health crisis across America,” Shulkin noted how VA is working to reduce the number. He said that the Veterans Crisis Line has greatly reduced the number of blocked calls — from 30 percent to less than 1 percent now — by hiring more staff to handle the calls. “If veterans are getting the right care and help, we can make a difference.”

Shulkin says that there is evidence that veterans are trusting their VA facilities more than in the past. He cited Yelp, an online review system where users can review and rate services, restaurants, hotels and more.

According to Yelp reviews, VA hospitals received an average of 3.7 out of 5 stars, compared with 3.19, the average for non-VA hospitals. “While we have a long way to go until we are satisfied, this is an indication that we are doing some things better and we are moving in the right direction.”

Shulkin promised that more changes are on the way. “For too long we have neglected modernizing the VA,” he said. “You are going to see a number of decisions I will be announcing to modernize the system.”

In conclusion, Shulkin said, “We will never let this system be privatized.”