Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Denis McDonough took the reins at VA during the COVID-19 pandemic. During his confirmation hearing, McDonough pledged to work to get the nation’s veterans and VA through the pandemic. That task has been no small order.
As of Aug. 17, VA has vaccinated nearly 4 million veterans, VA employees and individuals vaccinated through the SAVE LIVES Act.
“It is impossible not to notice the empty seats of those who are no longer with us,” McDonough told American Legion Family members at the 102nd National Convention in Phoenix on Aug. 31. “But it’s also important to remember that there are so many veterans out there … whose lives have been saved or bettered because we worked together.”
The most important thing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic is to get vaccinated, McDonough said. The American Legion has worked with VA to host clinics in efforts to get more Americans vaccinated. The Delta variant is making it even more critical that people get vaccinated.
“We’ve already lost thousands of veterans to this deadly disease and now the Delta variant is causing an exponential increase in infections, hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “This is why everyone needs to be vaccinated. Almost every person dying from COVID right now is unvaccinated. In other words, almost every COVID death is preventable.”
Despite the challenges VA has faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, not everything should go back to as it was before, according to McDonough. The expansion of telehealth services allows VA to reach more veterans, including those living in rural communities.
“As we look to the future, we’re going to continue to do better for our veterans,” McDonough told the Legionnaires. “We’re working to make sure the VA is the premier advocate for veterans, their caregivers and their families.
“Our shared mission could not be a higher priority for this president,” he added. “When President Biden nominated me to lead VA, he told me to fight like hell for the veterans.”
One of the ways VA is fighting for veterans is by ensuring that veterans have positive experiences wherever they access their benefits.
“We are building a network that has the right providers at the right locations to meet their needs no matter where they are,” he said.
Veterans have adapted seamlessly to tele-mental health as there have been more than 4.4 million sessions this year. That’s more than double the rate for 2020, McDonough said.
“There is no more important outcome that preventing veteran suicide,” he added.
Additionally, VA is focusing on toxic exposures with the creation of a comprehensive decision-making model for determining presumptive conditions. Bladder cancer, hypothyroidism and Parkinson’s due to Agent Orange exposure have now been added to the list of presumptive conditions. Finally, VA announced they will presumptively pay disability benefits to veterans who served in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and southwest Asia who now suffer from asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis.
“We're not waiting for Congress to act on this,” he said. “We’re seeking excellence in all we do for veterans by leveraging the strength and diversity that defines the veteran population. Every person in a VA facility must feel safe, free of harassment and discrimination.”
McDonough said one of his first actions as VA secretary was to order a top down review of policies.
“With the help of the Legion, we can help make VA a more welcoming place for LGBTQ veterans, women veterans, MST (military sexual trauma) survivors and more. For far too long, too many veterans have fought to protect our rights and our freedoms. And then they’ve had to fight battles here at home for their own rights and their own freedoms,” said McDonough. “Tragically some of those fights continue to this day.
“At VA those fights are over,” he added. “Under this administration, no one is going to have to fight for quality care, benefits and services they earned, no matter who they love.”