How VA is leveraging innovation to Be the One
Matthew Rowley, community builder for the VHA Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning, addressed the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission during the Legion’s Washington Conference, Feb. 26. Photo by Jennifer Blohm/The American Legion

How VA is leveraging innovation to Be the One

Members of The American Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Commission heard how the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is addressing veteran suicide, a top priority of The American Legion’s, through innovation.

Matthew Rowley, an Air Force veteran of the Iraq war and community builder for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning (OHIL), addressed the commission Feb. 26 during the Legion’s 64th Washington Conference. He provided a few examples of where VA is using innovation to prevent veteran suicide that aligns with the Legion’s Be the One mission.

VHA OHIL has a program called Senior Innovation Fellows where “we find our best and brightest VA innovators, and we support them for a year while they work on an innovation project,” Rowley said. There are two current projects that relate to social connection, “very much like what Be the One is doing to prevent and end veteran suicides.”

One of the projects is Compassionate Compact Corps, which pairs trained volunteers with veterans experiencing social isolation and loneliness for weekly phone calls. Since 2021, there have been 13,000 support calls.

“Over 80 percent of the (VA) veteran patients who were experiencing isolation felt that compassionate contact, or that weekly call, decreased their social isolation and loneliness,” Rowley said. “Over 80 percent of the volunteers said, ‘This has improved my quality of life as well.’ Just like Be the One, that is good for the person that you are reaching out to, it’s also good for your heart.”

The other project is veteran socials that are community-based events that foster interpersonal connections and social support among veterans and community members. Rowley said there are four Legion posts in Massachusetts that hold veteran socials and encourage others to do the same by connecting with your VA. And there’s Mission Daybreak, a VA challenge launched in 2022 that awarded $20 million to suicide prevention solutions to meet the diverse needs of veterans. The competition resulted in 1,300 submissions and 10 finalists. See the finalists.

“What I love so much about the Be the One (mission) is that it’s not just suicide prevention, it’s person-to-person, social connection, as a means to prevent suicide. It’s person-to-person. That means a lot to me,” added Rowley, who has lost friends to suicide, including a close one last month. “Be the One is a fantastic mission.”

Along with suicide prevention and social connectiveness efforts, Rowley spoke of what the VA is doing to push health care forward for veterans by developing processes and products that will make health care better. As a result of VA innovation, providers now have the ability to take CT scans of a veteran going into surgery and create a 3-D life-size model of their anatomy that the provider will use to plan for the surgery and explain to the veteran what exactly will happen in surgery.

“This is the future of veteran care,” Rowley said. “This is the office of advanced manufacturing. We are really excited to expand these offerings throughout VA.”

A pilot program currently going on at all VA medical centers upon request by the patient is Pharmacogenomics (PGx) – a blood test that studies how genetic variations affect individual responses to medications, like chemo treatment or cholesterol medicine. “We find out ahead of time (how a veteran will respond to medication) so we don’t put veterans at risk,” Rowley said, noting that there are 200,000 tests left until the pilot funds run out. “Talk to your provider and let your fellow veterans know about this. On a larger scale, if this is something you would like to see VA continue, your voice needs to be heard. Because there is no guarantee that this will exists after those 200,000 tests.”

American Legion members can visit the VHA OHIL marketplace to see the many innovations underway.  

“A big part of what we do is making sure we have that voice of the veteran,” Rowley said. “The easiest way to get involved in VA innovation is to check out what’s going on at the local level. There are 44 facilities with VA innovation specialists. Each one has projects being developed by frontline employees at the facility and they want veteran input.”

Rowley encouraged American Legion members to reach out to veterans not currently enrolled in the VA health-care system to highlight VA’s innovations and that innovation is driven by veteran input.  

“VA wants to be the provider of choice now, 10, 20, 30 years from now. We need to be reaching those veterans out in the community. And that is where the partnership with The American Legion is so important to what we’re doing. Your role in strengthening VA care is absolutely critical.”

Continuing with innovation and technology, commission members heard from Eugene Luskin, CEO of SyncMD – a free app that collects, stores and shares your medical records. SyncMD started in 2015 by former Microsoft employees and health-care providers.

“We entered the market with a personal health record solution that allows patients to securely collect, store and share their medical records anywhere, with anyone,” Luskin said. “Today, we are used across the United States by many patients, providers, hospitals, strategic partners and veteran nursing homes.”

SyncMD just completed integration with the VA to allow veterans to pull their records easily and securely from VA.

Users can visit to download the app onto their smartphones and begin requesting records from their provider, whether they receive care from or outside the VA.

Today, patients are using the app to retrieve their health records from the VA and, soon, the ability to confirm their service history and eligibility. Luskin said the app is a great tool when veterans are working with accredited service officers like The American Legion to file a claim and have access to their entire medical history.

“It’s effectively an electronic health world that allows veterans, patients, to collect their records from any sources and create a true 360-degree view of the patient. And it exceeds government requirements for securing health information,” Luskin said.