Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald
Orlando VAMC Dedication
May 26, 2015
First, let me thank our distinguished guests and Central Florida Veterans for helping make this beautiful facility a reality. I’m batting last in a long line-up, so I’ll be brief.
VA has set its sights on three main priorities: increasing access, eliminating the claims backlog, and ending Veterans homelessness.
We’ve made progress on each priority: In the past five years, we’ve reduced Veterans homelessness by 33 percent; in the past two years, we’ve shrunk the claims backlog by 74 percent; and in the past year, we’ve completed 2.4 million more appointments than in the previous twelve months and shrunk the Electronic Wait List by 55 percent.
Ninety-seven percent of appointments in March were completed within 30 days of the Veteran’s preferred date: 20 percent were same-day appointments, and 22 percent were completed by non-VA providers. We are now completing 500,000 mental health appointments each month, with an average wait time of about 3 days.
We still have a lot to do. Even if one Veteran is homeless, it's one too many. But we are making great progress.
Orlando Veterans have seen an even steeper decline in the Electronic Wait List. A year ago, it peaked locally at over 2,400. It’s now down around 900—a 62 percent drop—but still too high. So I want to thank Tim Liezert and the whole VA team in Central Florida for their hard work on the access issue.
Getting where we are today on access has meant a lot of extra appointment hours, including evenings and weekends. It has also meant increasing authorizations for non-VA care by 45 percent and hiring more health-care providers: 11,000 more VHA employees, including 970 more physicians and 2,100 more nurses.
More people need more space to work, so we’ve expanded VHA’s health-care footprint by 1.4 million square feet, and we have helped more Veterans get their care in the community.
A major challenge in expanding Veterans’ access to healthcare is aging infrastructure. Nine hundred VA facilities are over 90 years old, and 1,300 are over 70. These older facilities don’t meet today’s standards for hospital construction. They were designed to provide health care in the 1930s, not the 2020s. Their rooms are too small to accommodate state-of-the-art medical equipment and procedures, and they lack the privacy, convenience, and comfort Veterans, especially female Veterans, expect today. They need to be replaced with new facilities—such as this one.
Florida Veterans have been very fortunate: They have had the men and women sitting here today to speak for them, here and in Washington, and by just looking around, we can see how faithful and effective these advocates were in representing Florida Veterans.
But Veterans’ needs are not limited to Florida. While the total number of Veterans is actually declining, the total number of issues of Veterans and the Veterans needing help in the VA system are increasing. It's not because of Afghanistan or Iraq. It's because of the aging of the Veterans who served during the Vietnam era. In 1975 there were about 2 million Veterans over the age of 65. In 2017 there will be almost 10 million Veterans over 65. And these are Vietnam Era Veterans.
We must build the infrastructure of VA care and community care today that we will need when the Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan age. If we don’t close the gap now, we could be facing another access crisis 20 or 30 years from now.
I would therefore ask that those who have advocated so effectively for Florida Veterans do the same for Veterans everywhere. It’s time now to build the buildings today’s Veterans need now and will need even more in coming decades. And I promise you VA will do a better job of efficient and effective construction.
VA can do nothing on its own: We depend on Congress for funding and authorization, we depend on VSOs for advice and assistance, we depend on thousands of public and private partners to contribute their own resources and expertise to countless causes on the behalf of Veterans, and we depend on our own employees to go the extra mile in serving Veterans.
This summer, we at VA are renewing our commitment to America’s Veterans, and we’re asking others to join us in that commitment. We’re calling it the “Summer of Service.”
In the next three months, we’ll be turning the spotlight on VA Volunteers to thank them for the work they do and to show others how they can help, too.
Last year, over a thousand people volunteered here in Orlando, working over 100,000 hours—as much as 72 full-time employees. Nationally, 76,000 VA Volunteers helped out last year—at hospitals and clinics, at cemeteries, in Veterans’ own homes. Our goal for the Summer of Service is 100,000 volunteers by the end of August.
We also want to do more this summer with and for our strategic partners. Making the most of our strategic partnership is one objective of our MyVA initiative. Toward that end, I just signed a new VA policy directive to make it easier for other organizations to partner with VA, by standardizing our partnership process and making it more partner-friendly.
In my ten months as Secretary, I’ve seen many outstanding examples of personal and corporate generosity. The Summer of Service will spotlight those efforts as well. We are deeply grateful for the efforts of all our volunteers and partners, and we look forward to doing more together in the future.
Thanks again to everyone who supported the building of this facility, and to the VA employees and volunteers who will work here. This facility is a monument to service— service to the Nation and service to Veterans.
Let’s build more of them.