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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Hidden Heroes Summit: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation
Washington, DC
May 20, 2015

Good afternoon, everyone.

Senator Dole—Elizabeth—on behalf of VA and all Veterans, thank you for helping provide caregivers a resounding and powerful voice, and thank you for helping ensure their interests are well-represented at VA as we transform.

Last Thursday evening, Elizabeth received an award from PenFed foundation—one more of the numerous honors she’s received over her decades in public service.

I was there, and I was able to spend some time with her. It was my honor to be there to see her get such a richly deserved award. No other American woman has served as much as her—Assistant to President Reagan for Public Liaison; first woman to serve as Secretary of Transportation; President of the America Red Cross; First woman to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate; Caregiver to her distinguished husband, Senator Bob Dole.

And, now, caregiver to all of you—to all of us. You couldn’t have a better advocate.

In his Second Inaugural Address, as our bloody Civil War was coming to a close, President Lincoln gave all of us a mission—he charged us to care for those “who have borne the battle” and their families.

That’s VA’s mission—a noble, sacred mission supporting the greatest clients of any agency in the country. I’m proud to be a part of it.

To all the caregivers here this afternoon, my heartfelt thanks to you. Yours is a lead role in helping fulfill that sacred mission. Your service and sacrifice—your personal courage and your deep devotion—make me especially honored to share some time with you today.

Since I was sworn in as the eighth Secretary of Veterans Affairs, I’ve visited more than 140 sites where we serve Veterans, over 60 places where Veterans directly receive care. I’ve been to our VA medical centers, to our polytrauma centers, to community living centers, among many others.

By listening to VA employees, Veterans Service Organizations, Members of Congress, and literally thousands of Veterans—I’ve learned many lessons about our department and what it means to care for Veterans.

Here’s one lesson. When we talk about caring for Veterans, we’re shortsighted to limit ourselves to just the Veteran and the physician. Or just the Veteran and the nurse. Or the Veteran and the physical therapist, the X-ray technician, or counselor.

Time and again when I sit with Veterans at points of care, I’m not just talking to Veterans about Veterans. I’m talking to Veterans and their spouses. Sometimes, a Veteran and a parent. Or Veterans and their sons or daughters, or grandsons or granddaughters. Sometimes, a good, dear friend of that Veteran.

Very often, sitting beside the Veteran—advising and supporting—is the caregiver, someone like you, who serves, too.

Behind the scenes, you give of your time and your love in myriad ways, whether helping with transportation to and from appointments, helping your Veteran apply for benefits, or helping with meals, bathing, clothing, medications. The spectrum of care and compassion is wide, and any attempt to define it would inevitably come up too narrow.

Your work is hard—physically and emotionally exhausting. I imagine it’s sometimes lonely, and you may feel isolated. And I know the extent of your responsibilities may sometimes feel overwhelming.

Yet, you forge ahead, tirelessly, working to help your Veteran. In short, you caregivers are living breathing examples of what it means to care for those “who have borne the battle.”

So if we’re talking about caring for Veterans, then we’re talking about caregivers. By extension, we really have to be caring for caregivers.

Let me share a few ways we’re working on a number of fronts to improve Veteran outcomes and serve you and your Veterans better. You see, we want to make VA the top customer service organization in Federal government. It’s what we owe our Veterans. It’s what we owe all of you.

Right now we’re engaged in our historic, department-wide transformation—changing VA’s culture. It’s called MyVA, and it’s your VA, too. The organizing principle is simple—make Veterans the center of everything we do.

Veteran-centric.

And if we’re going to be Veteran-centric, we’re going to be caregiver-centric, too.

The overarching MyVA strategy focuses on five objectives that reorient us on Veterans’ outcomes: improving the Veteran’s experience, improving the employee experience, achieving support service excellence, establishing a culture of continuous performance improvement, and enhancing our strategic partnerships.

Two of those objectives—improving Veterans’ experience and enhancing strategic partnerships—are fundamental to caregiver support. We can’t succeed in serving Veterans without you, and we can’t succeed without vibrant, productive, engaged community partnerships.

I need you to be a part of those.

One way is through MyVA Communities.

MyVA Communities bring together local Veterans service providers, advocates, and others. These are community driven networks chaired by local leaders to improve outcomes for Veterans, families, and caregivers. They’ll give Veterans and all of you a proactive forum to address the issues, and they aim to resolve issues and help all of us better meet Veterans’ needs.

The first of the MyVA communities—MyVA Connecticut—will launch this month.

VA field leaders will help the movement expand through the summer—we’re ready to support efforts in all 50 states.

I need you to join as more MyVA communities stand up. Help make sure we’re serving your Veteran and you in the ways Veterans need to be served.

Another initiative important to you is our Unified Veterans Experience. Have you ever been online trying to locate important VA information only to find hundreds of websites?

You have more important things to do than get lost in the World Wide Web. So we’re going from hundreds of web sites to a single portal. We expect to see that site go live for testing in the next few days. Fifty Veterans will help beta-test the navigation, fonts, and organization of the new portal. And caregivers are testing it—some of you here today have helped—so we can make sure it meets your needs.

We’re moving in a similar direction with 1-800 numbers. Right now, we have nine-hundred 1-800 numbers, and about 200 call centers.

You need to pick up the phone, make one call, get your answer, and get back to your Veteran and your family. For general access to VA, we’re going to a single 1-800 number and decreasing the number of call centers. You can still reach out to your provider in the ways you’ve found most effective. But if you don’t know exactly where to turn, you can start with just one number.

The range of VA services available to you reaches well-beyond the Caregiver Support Program. So we’re establishing a caregiver steering committee—bringing together senior officials from programs across VA that support you. Programs like respite, home and community based services, the fiduciary program, and the Caregiver Support Program. They’ll be reaching out and listening so we can make sure the programs we have are meeting your needs. We look forward to working with caregivers on this initiative in the months ahead.

At VA, our I-CARE Values are important to us—Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. I can think of no group of people who better personify those high ideals than those gathered here today. And I can think of no better example of a caregiver we’d do well to emulate than Senator Elizabeth Dole.

We look forward to continuing our important work together with you and all the good people at the Dole Foundation.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless those in your care.