New Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said modernizing VA “is long overdue” during a speech Tuesday at The American Legion’s 57th annual Washington Conference.
“I believe that the VA system is a unique system. Not only is it a ‘system worth saving’ but essential for veterans and for the country,” Shulkin said, referencing The American Legion’s program in which it works with VA to evaluate its medical centers across the nation. “I am reminded that having come from the private sector how important it is to have a system that specifically cares for veterans.”
During the annual Commander’s Call at the Washington Hilton, Shulkin also pressed the 115th Congress to approve a legislative solution for VA. His comments echoed the Legion’s position for Congress to pass appeals modernization legislation — a focal point of the annual conference taking place this week.
“In terms of modernizing the VA system, which is really where my focus is, I think it is important to remember that VA has historically contributed to not only health care but to all of America,” said Shulkin, who has been VA secretary for two weeks.
He noted that there have been more than 100 attempts to study and fix VA.
“We don’t need any more studies or commissions or recommendations on how to fix the VA,” Shulkin said. “What we need to do is get to work and execute it and really focus on it. And that’s exactly what we are going to be doing. We are going to be streamlining the organization. We need to get rid of the red tape, the regulations that prevent us from providing the services that you need. We are going to take the best of VA and the best of the private sector and make them one system that works for veterans.”
Shulkin credited Legion leadership for its role in supporting veterans. “The American Legion is such an important organization,” he said. “Your commitment and passion for everything for veterans is so important. You have such great leadership.”
The secretary also noted some other important topics VA is addressing:
• “Veterans suicide is our top clinical priority,” he said, noting VA was preparing to unveil new initiatives in the area of prevention. “We are going to be working with our community partners to do as much as we possibly can. We do need help with this.”
• Therapy programs: “We take people out of wheelchairs and have them ski down mountains,” Shulkin said, noting how, as deputy under secretary, he visited some of VA’s adaptive sport therapy programs. “Or this summer, I was with veterans who were out there surfing. You begin to start seeing how important these activities are for developing our veterans. These are unique services in the VA system.”
• TeleHealth: He praised VA’s TeleHealth system, which has recorded 9 million episodes and more than 700,000 veterans currently use it. “I have not done this in the private sector but it is routine for rural veterans. No one uses technology like VA does.”
• Veterans Benefits Administration: “In VBA in March 2013, there were 600,000 claims waiting over 125 days,” he said. “Today that number is less than 100,000. But we are still not satisfied until we get that to a much lower number and we’re looking at ways to modernize out benefits system even further.”