THE HONORABLE TOGO D. WEST, JR.
DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
SENATE COMMITTEE ON VETERANS AFFAIRS
CONFIRMATION OF THE SECRETARY-DESIGNATE
February 24, 1998
Chairman Specter; Ranking Democratic Member Rockefeller; Members of the Committee.
I am pleased to appear before you today.
During my years of service to this country, I learned firsthand of the extraordinary contributions made by America’s men and women in uniform.
As the President’s nominee for Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I am grateful for the opportunity to work on behalf of veterans who have earned the Nation’s gratitude and respect.
Few privileges compare with the opportunity to have daily contact with America’s sons and daughters in uniform and, through them, their families and the civilians who share a commitment to our Nation’s security.
This young nation has survived and matured at great cost to its citizens. The freedoms we hold so dear were won on battlefields by ordinary people who held freedom more dearly than their own lives.
They believed that self determination and self governance should be a birthright to all. In the course of our 222 years of independence more than 41 million of our citizens have served the cause of freedom. More than a million have died in the name of freedom. A million and a half have been wounded. Today there are almost 27-million citizens who are veterans.
Around the world, young men and women and seasoned service members stand up for freedom and stand against tyranny. They do so as volunteers. They do so as patriots. They do so as the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers of the future of the world. It is to all of these gallant and brave citizens, past and present, that America owes her freedom. It is to them that America has made a promise. It is the Department of Veterans Affairs that has been given the responsibility of keeping America’s promise.
As we move toward the next millennium, I look forward to working with you on behalf of veterans and their families.
I will expect -- and am prepared to demand -- of the department that we:
· improve the quality and timeliness of the delivery of benefits;
· continue improving our health care system, emphasizing quality, compassion and effectiveness;
· assure our employees a work environment that is conducive to their best efforts in behalf of veterans;
· master the challenges of information technology, including the looming issues of the year 2000; and
· more fully integrate the department’s organizational elements.
I will expect and demand of myself and our employees that we accomplish these things because they are important in keeping America’s promise to our veterans.
Since I became Acting Secretary at VA I have been immersed in the learning process. I am pleased by what I have learned.
During the five years of this administration, VA and Congress have worked to make significant progress in changing and improving the way we provide services to veterans and their families. As we move into the next millennium, we must improve that process so that at VA we work as true partners with the Congress, in collaboration with the Veterans Service Organizations, to build together as we deliver on America’s promise to her veterans.
Our top priority is to treat our veterans with dignity and improve their quality of life. That includes intensifying our efforts to ensure improvement of the quality, timeliness and veteran satisfaction with the delivery of compensation and pension benefits and services.
VA has been successful in removing many barriers between veterans and their health care and compensation benefits.
Work is continuing on many fronts, such as:
· exploring several new approaches to improve our claims processes;
· negotiating agreements with the Department of Defense to streamline our records transfer process;
· collaborating with the Federal Express Center for Cycle Time Research to study and refine our business flows; and,
· undertaking a system-wide "business process reengineering" review to improve our service delivery.
These initiatives and others have provided short-term processing improvements, but more significantly they have reminded us of the importance of viewing our program delivery from a balanced perspective.
Our efforts will focus on service improvements from the veteran’s point of view. Dramatic service improvements require dramatic change in the way we view our business, the way we train our employees, and the way we engineer our systems.
Mr. Chairman, our health care must be the standard against which others are measured. I am committed to VA becoming a world class health care provider.
We will accelerate the improvement of our health care system. We want to bring health care closer to where veterans live. I am pleased that we are providing more and better outpatient care. VA is establishing more outpatient clinics and closing costly, unused and unneeded hospital beds. The result is that we are treating more veterans in the most appropriate setting.
Through the combined efforts of many service organizations, individual veterans, VA and the enlightened action by this Committee and Congress, the eligibility rules for health care have been revised and updated to make sure that veterans who need care are not prohibited from receiving it.
I am committed to all these improvements and changes.
I say again: We cannot lose sight of our prime purpose. We must continue to focus on the highest quality of care. We must focus on not just treating more veterans, but treating them with all the compassion, expertise, and respect they deserve.
We must be sure we are also meeting the special needs of veterans for whom priority care is critical and specialized:
· veterans suffering from the hazards of past service in the Persian Gulf;
· veterans with spinal cord injuries;
· aging veterans from World Wars I and II and the Korean War;
· veterans who are Ex-POWs;
· veterans exposed to Agent Orange;
· women veterans;
· atomic veterans; and
· homeless veterans.
VA must be the medical safety net for veterans at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.
We must keep our promise to all our veterans. We must continue to expand our research into all the health areas which affect the quality of life for our veterans.
Finally, when life for them is no more, we must be prepared to provide a fitting and final resting place of honor.
Key to accomplishing our mission is assuring that we have a workforce we can be proud of and one that is proud of what it does.
I want to be sure we have a working environment that fosters a sense of the importance and worth of what our employees do for veterans. I want our employees to come to work confident that their very best efforts are not hampered by inappropriate behavior by any other employee. I want VA employees to leave the workplace each day with a strong feeling of self worth, knowing that their work has made the quality of life for some veteran better.
Success in serving veterans is dependent upon having a highly effective workforce comprised of the best clinical providers, the best adjudicators, the best qualified people with the right skills and training to meet our promise to veterans. Part of that success is making sure that VA employees have the right information technology and the proper training to use that technology. It is essential that we be able to transfer information accurately and quickly between the various elements of VA if we are to make progress in the quality and timeliness of the services we provide.
I am committed to the 5-year strategic plan as we continue moving to a more customer-focused organization, functioning as "One-VA". Veterans seeking benefits do not see us as several separate entities. They see only the VA. We want our service and our response to veterans to be seamless and coordinated.
These are the priorities and goals I have set for myself and for the department. They are simple to state; but achieving them will not be easy. I assure you that I believe they are attainable. Progress in meeting them is underway.
Mr. Chairman, in this time of looming crisis in the Gulf, I want to address the issue of health problems of Gulf War veterans from Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and some lessons we have learned. Nearly 700,000 U.S. troops were deployed to the Gulf area during those operations. Many veterans returned home with a variety of symptoms and illnesses and came to VA for help.
More than 221,000 Gulf War veterans have utilized VA medical facilities; 22,000 Gulf War veterans have been hospitalized at VA medical facilities; and more than 80,000 have been counseled at VA’s Vet Centers. More than 140,000 have been determined as service connected. We will continue doing all within our power to provide dedicated, compassionate care for our veterans.
We are vigorously searching for answers to the causes of their suffering and examining a growing list of risk factors through more than 120 research protocols funded by federal agencies representing an investment of more than $100 million.
President Clinton has made it clear that no effort should be spared in this search for an answer. I intend to meet that mandate.
We have learned some important lessons in addressing the health care problems associated with modern-day injuries and illnesses sustained in the battle area.
Today, war is different than those we fought in Europe and Asia in the 40s and 50s. The battlefield may contain environmental hazards with which we have not previously been confronted. In many ways those environmental hazards pose as much of a challenge as the traditional wounds inflicted on our service members.
We have learned that maintaining accurate and detailed medical records of troops in the field is critical to timely and accurate health care once the individual comes to VA for health care. The records must clearly include any inoculations given, what they were and who received them when.
There must be better risk management and risk communication. That simply means there is a responsibility to keep track of who is at risk and what kinds of risk they face on the battlefield from chemical, biological or environmental hazards. Those risks must be communicated clearly to the service members who have the potential of exposure. The U.S. men and women in uniform must understand why there is risk and how to deal with it. That is a command responsibility.
We must know who was where at what time if we are to accurately assess their exposure to harmful agents. During my tenure as Secretary of the Army, the Army had the lead in developing the Gulf War unit location database which has greatly expanded the ability to track individual service members that may have been exposed to chemical or environmental threats. That is a technique that we must continue to improve.
I cannot overstate the importance of coordination and communication between federal agencies with overlapping responsibilities for Active, Guard and Reserve members and veterans. The Persian Gulf Veterans Coordinating Board is the mechanism we currently use to further this coordination and communication process primarily between the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services and Veterans Affairs.
In summary, we have learned a great deal. We are putting that knowledge into practice at VA . Our counterparts in other federal agencies are working on solutions to identified problems to make sure that information important to providing good health care for veterans is available to VA when needed.
It is my responsibility to see that the efforts move forward in this very important element of our national commitment to care for veterans.
I conclude with this thought.
For the most part, we are a country of citizens who never faced the specter of invasion.
That is an extraordinary legacy. No other country in the world can lay claim to it. And it is so because of one group --- one group of dedicated men and women. When they wear their uniforms, we call them soldiers, and sailors, and marines, and airmen, and coast guardsmen and when they take off their uniforms they still call themselves that. And we call them veterans. America’s heroes.
I am here to serve them.
I promise you, and more importantly, I promise our veterans that I will do my very best to Keep America’s Promise.
Mr. Chairman, this concludes my opening remarks and am I ready to respond to your questions.