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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

WaterFire Salute to Veterans
Providence, Rhode Island
November 8, 2014

When the world is threatened … it calls on America. And [America] calls on its troops.

Simply put, our men and women in uniform are the lifeblood of democracy—from the 90-year-old GI who stormed Omaha Beach, to the 19-year-old Marine who battled insurgents in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

Today’s warfighters have shouldered the burden of our defense for more than a decade now. Like generations before them, they displayed extraordinary strength and resilience. They sacrificed personally for the greater good. They demonstrated remarkable perseverance in the face of adversity to protect the freedoms we, as Americans, enjoy daily.

They worked with others, often very different from themselves, to accomplish great feats. They showed care and compassion for those in need, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. They lived by the core values of duty, honor, and country, and in doing so, earned our trust.

Here in Providence, VA employees are working to do the right thing by all generations of our Veterans. This medical center is a leader. A leader in access—with average wait times for care under ten days. A leader in innovation—with new therapies and technologies to restore function in nervous system disorders. A leader in research—as the coordinating hub for a new, highly advanced upper-limb prosthetic device called the DEKA arm. And a leader in patient care as recognized by the American Nurses Credentialing Center’s Pathway to Excellence Award.

Here and across the country, everything we do at VA is built on a foundation of trust. We know that trust has eroded recently, and we’re taking immediate action to rebuild trust with Veterans and stakeholders, focusing on Veterans’ outcomes to improve service delivery, and setting the course for long-term excellence and reform.

We’ve made accelerating care to Veterans our top near-term priority.

  • We’ve reached out to hundreds of thousands of Veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics.
  • In recent months, we’ve added 1,600 more nurses, 600 physicians, and 700 more schedulers to our ranks.
  • From June through September, we completed 19 million appointments, 1.2 million more appointments for care than the same period a year ago. Ninety-eight percent of these appointments were completed within 30 days and 500,000 were completed during extended hours as an added convenience to our Veterans.
  • In the same four months, we approved more than seven million appointments for Veterans to receive care in the community—a 47% increase over the same period last year.

At the same time, we’re restructuring to build a user-friendly, agile, and responsive VA, no matter how Veterans come to us—digitally, by phone, or in person.

Our goal is to deliver quality care and service with the same proactive, real-time, courteous, and coordinated service as the top-ranked customer service companies in the country.

The fact is many areas of VA already have that type of service excellence. Since 2004, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, the ACSI, has shown that Veterans receiving VA health care give us higher satisfaction ratings than patients receiving care in private hospitals.

For the past decade, the ACSI has ranked our National Cemetery Administration as the top customer service organization in the Nation. That’s among organizations of all types—better than Google, Lexus, and all the rest. And every year for the last five years, J.D. Power has scored VA’s Mail Order Pharmacy the highest in overall satisfaction.

With the right reforms, there’s no reason why that performance excellence can’t be scaled VA-wide.

I’ve been at VA less than nine months. I guess being here in Rhode Island, I should mention I was introduced at my Senate confirmation hearing by Senator Jack Reed, a good friend whom I have long admired. Even in my short nine months at VA, one thing is clear to me: There’s no substitute for the Department of Veterans Affairs. None.

Every day, our unique set of services and care produces positive results for Veterans, their families, and everyday Americans. VA has a legacy of excellence, innovation, cutting-edge research, and achievements in health care that is as broad and historically significant as it is generally unrecognized. While not diminishing the challenges we face today, VA’s value is unequalled as an integrated health care system supporting three pillars of service to our Nation.

First, research. Not many people know that VA researchers have received three Nobel Prizes, or that VA pioneered modern electronic medical records and bar-code software for safely administering medications, developed the implantable cardiac pacemaker, conducted the first successful liver transplant, created the nicotine patch, developed artificial limbs that move naturally when stimulated by electrical brain impulses, and proved one aspirin a day reduced by half the rate of death and nonfatal heart attacks. And that’s just a sampling!

The second pillar is training. Consider this: 70 percent of all U.S. physicians did at least some of their training in VA facilities. Each year VA supports the training and education of 62,000 medical students and residents, 23,000 nurses, and 33,000 trainees in other health fields. These are the people who go on to deliver great health care not just to Veterans, but to most Americans all across the country.

Our third pillar, of course, is providing highly specialized clinical and rehabilitative care. VA’s work in traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress and in the treatment of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, produces advances in care for Veterans, Americans, and the world at large.

Whether in prosthetics and polytrauma care, disability and education benefits, home loans and homeless rescues—there’s no other single institution like VA positioned to deliver its array of Veteran-specific care and services. Veterans need VA, and many millions of Americans benefit from our work.

Past generations returning from war in Europe and Asia helped make this country great, and today’s generation of returning Veterans can do the same.

One million Servicemembers are expected to transition to civilian life over the next several years. Just as previous generations of Veterans transformed our Nation, this generation is poised to make its own mark. We have the opportunity to support these men and women, and their families, by helping them become integral parts of our communities. It’s the smart thing to do.

Think about it. In business, academia, and government at all levels, can we imagine any situation where we don’t need more people who put service before self, who can bridge differences to accomplish great things, who will persevere even in the face of daunting obstacles, and who we can trust implicitly to choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong?

These men and women stood in harm’s way for us. Many put their lives on the line. And while saying “Thank you for your service” is important, we all have more active roles to play by embracing them as they transition to civilian life. It’s the right thing to do.

At a time when our country faces so many challenges, we can make the most of what these great men and women have to offer. An investment in Veterans is an investment in the future of America. It’s both the smart thing and the right thing to do.

Governor Chafee, Mayor Taveras, General McBride—I want to thank you for the opportunity to join you and the great people of Providence in this awe-inspiring WaterFire Salute to Veterans. Thank you.