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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson

Birmingham Veterans Day Dinner
Birmingham, Alabama
November 10, 2014

Almost a decade to the day after terrorists attacked our Nation on September 11, 2001, a young Soldier was on his third tour to Afghanistan.

On a dismounted patrol, he identified what were now to him familiar signs of an improvised explosive device. Trained as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, this Soldier did his duty without hesitation. He went to investigate the threat.

A secondary device exploded, causing devastating injuries.

After surgery in Kandahar and time stabilizing in Landstuhl, Germany, where his wife joined him, he was transferred to Walter Reed.

Recovery takes a long time. He’s had some 50 surgeries. He lost both legs above the knee and two fingers. His hands were damaged. Arms damaged. Scarring around his abdomen. Moderate Traumatic Brain Injury.

He retired from active duty last November.

The story I’m telling you is about Sergeant First Class Aaron Causey. His wife, who’s been at his side helping him the entire time—and helping and inspiring so many others—is Kat. I’d like you to meet two of our dear friends and two of Birmingham’s newest residents, retired Army Sergeant First Class Aaron and Kat Causey.

Aaron and Kat have come back to Kat’s hometown with their 10-month-old daughter, Alexandra Jayne. I know I can count on this great community to embrace this wonderful family as they make their transition.

Aaron and his fellow warfighters of today 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.

These Veterans, like those of earlier generations, have come to rely on the care and benefits provided by their VA.

We are all aware of instances recently where trust in VA has eroded. We’re working hard to rebuild that trust—with Veterans and with stakeholders. And we’re focusing on Veterans’ outcomes to improve service delivery and setting the course for long-term excellence and reform.

Let me share some details on our progress and direction. I visited the Birmingham VA Medical Center today and saw what your VA is doing to accelerate access to care—our top national priority.

Birmingham has reached out to over 2,500 Veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics. To accelerate access to care, Birmingham has added over 900 appointment slots across 14 clinics. They’ve extended clinic hours into nights and weekends. For example, Birmingham’s Mental Health Clinic is open from 7:00 in the morning to 11:00 at night.

Across the Nation, we have reached out to hundreds of thousands of Veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics. From June through September, 500,000 appointments were completed during extended hours. Altogether during those four months, we completed 19 million appointments, 1.2 million more than the same period a year ago. And 98 percent of them fell within 30 days of Veterans’ preferred date.

Birmingham has authorized more than 10,000 private sector appointments, and Veterans waiting the longest for care is down 76 percent. Nationally, we authorized 7 million appointments for care in the private sector—a 47 percent increase over the same period in 2013.

We’ve deployed mobile medical units, used temporary staffing. And we’ve ramped up medical staff hires. In recent months, VA has added 1,600 nurses, 600 new physicians, and 700 more schedulers to our ranks.

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 the same kind of quality care and service as the top-ranked customer service companies in the country. The fact is that 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 same index 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. Even in my short time, 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, for their families, and for all 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. We support 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 the short list.

The second pillar is training. Consider this: about 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. Many millions of Americans benefit from our work.

Our Nation’s Veterans need VA.

One million Servicemembers are expected to transition to civilian life over the next several years. Past generations returning from war in Europe and Asia helped make this country great, and today’s generation of returning Veterans—Veterans just like Aaron—can do the same.

Just as previous generations of Veterans transformed our Nation, today’s Veterans are poised to make their 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.

Thank you for sharing the evening with Margaret and me.