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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA)
Eighth Annual Heroes Gala
New York, New York
November 13, 2014

Congratulations, everyone, on ten years of IAVA service to our latest generation of warfighters. Let me thank you and all Veterans for your service, and for your sacrifices.

The Roundtable discussion I had with Paul and some of your members earlier this evening brought a number of perspectives to bear on the issues facing VA. Thank you for the opportunity to participate.

IAVA’s voice is being heard. It’s part of the process, and it’s influencing the way VA moves forward:

  • Through your participation in local stakeholder meetings as I’ve travelled to over 40 VA facilities in 21 cities across the country;
  • Through IAVA’s representation on the working group for VA’s purchase of a new Medical Appointment Scheduling System;
  • Through our MOU and joint work to stop Veterans’ suicide;
  • Through your members’ regularly attending briefings on VA operations, initiatives, and performance;
  • And through discussions with me and other VA leaders, particularly in regard to the Choice Program.

VA cannot do what needs to be done, and accomplish its goals, without a full complement of partners, like IAVA. We look to you and other organizations to help us build a better VA for our mutual customers through ongoing dialog, constructive counsel, and positive input. We also look to you to help insert a degree of balance and truth to the one-sided conversation about VA care and services—supported by facts, metrics, and objectivity. And we look to working with all as advocates—not adversaries taking advantage of each other for purposes other than helping Veterans.

The gravity of what happened in Phoenix and elsewhere is lost on no one. We have a responsibility to right the wrongs, and we are doing that.

At the same time, VA also has an opportunity to lengthen our lead in areas where we’ve always excelled, take the lead in service delivery areas that are lagging, and chart new ground in emerging or evolving areas of health care.

We are moving forward to fully leverage that opportunity. While we own and are fixing the problems of the recent past, we have our eyes on the future—and we’re looking at it through the lens of the Veterans we serve. Over the past three months, through our “Road to Veterans Day” initiative, we’ve set our sights on three nonnegotiable goals: rebuilding trust with Veterans and stakeholders; improving service delivery, focusing on Veteran outcomes; and setting a course for long-term excellence and reform. We’ve made progress on all three.

Accelerating care to Veterans is our top near-term priority:

  • We’ve reached out to hundreds of thousands of Veterans to get them off wait lists and into clinics.
  • 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 at VA facilities as an added convenience to our Veterans.
  • Also from June through September, we approved more than 7 million appointments for Veterans to receive care in the community—a 47 percent increase over the same period last year.

We’ve developed a “Blueprint for Excellence” to re-establish VA’s leadership in health care, and we’ve begun what may become the largest restructuring in the department’s history. We call that reorganization and our customer service solution “MyVA”—it’s part of our Road to Veterans Day strategy.

We call it that because that’s how we want Veterans to view us—as an organization that belongs to them, providing quality care in the ways they need and want to be served—whether they come to us digitally, by phone, or in person. And whether they come to us for health care or any one of our eight other VA lines of business.

The goal is simple: 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. VA already has 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—better than Google, Lexus, and all the rest. And every year for the last 5 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. We’re making good progress toward that goal: We’ve cut the disability claims backlog by 60 percent in the last 20 months, and Veterans’ homelessness is down 33 percent since 2010.

Last week, we began implementing the new Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, or “Choice Act,” which allocates $5 billion to hire more doctors, nurses, and other medical staff, and $10 billion to fund additional purchased care while building internal capability.

VA has always used purchased care when needed, but with the Choice Act, we’re taking it to a new level with our new Veterans Choice Program. Just this week, we stood up a special call center to verify eligibility and answer questions about the program—1-866-606-8198.

We’ve begun extending the option of purchased care to eligible Veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. We’ll do the same for those who have been waiting too long for an appointment—meaning more than 30 days from the clinically appropriate date or the date preferred by the Veteran. In coming months, we will issue Choice Cards to all other Veterans enrolled for VA health care, who might need purchased care in the future.

The Choice Program can be a big part of the solution to our access problem, but the new law is extremely complex, and we need to make sure we get things right the first time. Here are some of the issues:

  • We need to make sure VA doctors and non-VA doctors both know what the other is doing for each Veteran, and that Veterans get the screening and preventive care they need.
  • We also need to make seeking and receiving purchased care as easy as possible for both Veterans and physicians.

For those reasons, we’ve signed contracts with two health care companies with experience running similar programs—TriWest and HealthNet—and we’ll be working with them to administer the Choice program in the best way possible.

The Choice Act will go a long way toward enabling VA to meet the current demand for care, and to support the large-scale reforms we’re making for long-term excellence.

Look, VA has come a long way since May. What we are about is way, way too important to let any selfish, political, or self-aggrandizing ambitions get between us and the customers—the Veterans—both our organizations were created to serve. As we continue to move forward, we will retain our laser focus on Veterans. Let’s work together—in deeds as well as words—and not let up in the drive to provide the very best in care and services that Veterans and their families have earned and deserve.

Thank you.