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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Connecticut Community Veterans Engagement Board (CVEB) Inaugural Meeting
August 27, 2015

Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for that kind introduction and for your strong leadership on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Let me acknowledge Congresswoman Esty, Major General Thaddeus Martin, and Connecticut’s Veterans Service Organizations that have helped make the Connecticut CVEB concept a reality. And I want to ask all the Veterans here tonight—both on the Board and in the audience—to please stand, if you’re able.

Dr. Jack Miller and your folks at Central Connecticut State University—your hospitality and generosity supporting the Board and Veterans this evening has been simply amazing. Thank you.

Governor Malloy—thank you for what your state is doing for Veterans in Connecticut and, by extension and by example, for Veterans across the Nation.

Board Co-Chairs General Dan McHale and Ms. Heather Sandler—thanks to both of you and the entire board for inviting me to share in celebrating your community’s very important achievement.

I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am of everyone here—for the hard work you’ve done, and for the work you’re committed to doing to care for Veterans and their families.

Caring for Veterans is the very heart of President Lincoln’s charge to every American in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of our bloody Civil War. In 1865, President Lincoln directed us to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” and for their families and their survivors. Tonight in this auditorium—more than 150 years later—your commitment to that most noble mission is vibrant and palpable.

And as you’re demonstrating, it’s every bit as much your mission as it is my mission. Your work is a reminder to every American. I’m honored to be a part of it. Thanks to people like you, VA is changing, truly transforming for Veterans.

And we’re making good progress and addressing challenges. Let me give you just a few examples before the co-chairs introduce your board and open the floor to some discussion.

You’re familiar with VA’s claims backlog. Well, Monday, VA reached a historic milestone when the claims backlog dropped below 100,000. Since the 2013 peak of 611,000, backlog claims have been reduced by 84 percent—the lowest point since we started keeping track.

How’d they do it? A record-breaking 1.17 million claims in 2013. Another record year in 2014—1.32 million claims. And we’re on track to complete nearly 1.4 million claims by the end of this fiscal year. Those successes are thanks to strong partnerships and the help of Congress, Veterans Service Organizations, state and county Veterans service departments, and people like Will Streitberger and Jessica Maki here in the Hartford Regional Office.

Talk about transformational—it’s real progress for Veterans that’s the product of great partnerships.

We’ve tackled the access problem. Today, we’re meeting Veterans’ growing demand with more of everything available—more hours, more space, more people, more productivity, more accountability, more transparency, and more choice.

We’ve completed seven million more appointments this year than last—2.5 million at VA, 4.5 million in the community. Nationally, we complete 97 percent of appointments within 30 days.

We complete 92 percent within 14 days, 88 percent within 7 days, and 22 percent same day.

Average wait times for completed appointments—four days for Primary Care, five days for Specialty Care, three days for Mental Health Care.

The Electronic Wait List is down 47 percent, and the New Enrollee Appointment Request list is down 93 percent.

Overall, VA healthcare providers have increased physician productivity 8 percent—on a healthcare budget increase of just 2.8 percent.

Your VA is working harder. We’re working smarter. We’re making real progress. And that means more and better care for more Veterans.

But, we still have sizeable challenges, and we need everyone’s help and support.

We appreciate Congress giving us the budgetary flexibility to use Choice program funds for other Care-in-the-Community programs. But that flexibility only lasts about 35 more days. Next fiscal year, we’ll be in the same bind without flexibility to put funds against the care Veterans are choosing.

And Choice is just one of six different programs providing Care-in-the-Community—and that’s confusing to Veterans, providers, and VA staff. So, to better serve Veterans, we’re going to submit a plan to Congress to consolidate and simplify all of our Care-in-the-Community programs.

And Veterans need full funding of the President’s 2016 budget request for VA. The House-proposed $1.4 billion reduction would mean $688 million less for Veterans’ medical care—70,000 Veterans going without care and a 50 percent cut in construction, despite our aging infrastructure. The Senate’s proposed reduction of $857 million will hurt, too—even as we work together hard to improve care for Veterans.

To improve Veterans’ care for years to come we’re transforming VA—applying proven customer-service principles from the public and private sectors. Our transformation is called MyVA, and it’s about working as a department to achieve our five main focuses:

  • First, improving the Veteran experience to be seamless, integrated, and responsive;
  • Second, improving the employee experience, focusing on people and culture to better serve Veterans;
  • Third, improving our internal support services;
  • Fourth, establishing a culture of continuous improvement;
  • And fifth, enhancing strategic partnerships—building vital networks of collaborative relationships across the federal government, across state and local government, and with both non-profit and for-profit organizations.

It’s the same kind of excellent work you’ve done here in Connecticut on Veteran homelessness—work that exemplifies the kind of direct impact communities can have on Veterans’ lives.

Thanks to Governor Malloy’s leadership and collaboration across the state, Connecticut’s nearing the finish line in reaching a systematic end to Veteran homelessness.

Why? It’s because of some really unprecedented state-wide cooperation and coordination among state government, federal agencies, and community non-profits.

It’s because of cooperation and collaboration among seven different public housing authorities armed with $27 million in HUD-VASH vouchers.

It’s Governor Malloy’s $600,000 commitment to vocational services for homeless Veterans VA can’t serve.

It’s your Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services reaching out to homeless Veterans ineligible for VA services.

Overall across the Nation since 2009, there’s been a 33 percent reduction in Veteran homelessness, and a 40 percent reduction in chronic homelessness among Veterans.

Communities have housed more than 200,000 homeless Veterans—many with family members—and provided services to more than 260,000 homeless or at-risk Veterans. Over 72,500 Veterans were either placed in permanent housing or prevented from becoming homeless—that’s more than 100,000 people when we include Veterans’ family members.

Collaboration and good government at the state and local levels drive that kind of success for Veterans. It’s just one way communities care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” and their families.

Here’s another example of grass-roots collaborations making a difference in Veterans lives—you may have read about it Monday in Peggy McCarthy’s Hartford Courant article. Since 2014, Connecticut’s Veterans Justice Programs have served nearly 900 Veterans, and they’ve reached out to Veterans in all 17 adult state and federal prisons and Connecticut’s three major adult jails.

Connecticut’s Veterans Justice Outreach is state legislators, judges, prosecutors, defenders, social workers, and VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach specialists working collaboratively. When Veterans find themselves before the New Haven, Waterbury, or Milford Superior Courts, these partnerships help qualifying Veterans get their lives back on track with jail diversion opportunities.

Connecticut doesn’t yet have its own Veterans Treatment Courts, but those courts are a hallmark of Veterans Justice Outreach across the United States. In 2009, there were only four or five Veterans Courts. By 2013 there were 266, and 344 by 2014.

Here’s some Veterans Treatment Courts outcomes. Two thirds of Veterans before the treatment courts successfully complete treatment. When they receive VA services, they experience an 88 percent reduction in arrests from the year prior to the year after treatment court admission, and they benefit from a 30 percent increase in stable housing in the year after.

It’s no miracle—it’s partnership. Veterans embraced with local community and VA services.

And that’s why we’re here this evening.

My sincere congratulations to Connecticut for establishing the first Veterans community board in the country using the new MyVA Communities model.

Tonight, we’re celebrating collaboration among Connecticut’s Veteran service providers, Veteran advocates, and other stakeholders.

So far, 18 communities across the United States have adopted the MyVA Community Model—from San Diego’s One VA Community Advocacy Board to Maine’s Veterans Engagement Board; from St. Paul’s Beyond The Yellow Ribbon Steering Committee to Ann Arbor’s Veterans Community Action Team.

Exactly what they’re called isn’t what’s important. What’s important is what they do for Veterans.

And we cannot miss that the Connecticut Community Veterans Engagement Board—like every engagement board after it—is a community movement, a local movement.

It’s Connecticut answering Lincoln’s charge. It’s leadership where leadership has the greatest impact—at the grass-roots level.

In closing, I want to encourage the board to closely examine the issues affecting Veterans here locally. With VA leaders at the table, we’ll work together to improve Veterans’ outcomes.

There are 60 more cities working to achieve what Connecticut has accomplished. And we hope to see 50 MyVA Communities by the end of this year—stretching from Portland to Providence, and from Fargo to Phoenix. So share your model and lessons-learned with them. Challenge them, and help them follow your lead.

Again, thank you for welcoming me to this important event.

God bless all of you, our Veterans, and our great Nation.