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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

The 117th Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention
Charlotte, N.C.
July 26, 2016

Bill Bradshaw, where are you? Three decades of hard work for VFW and Veterans. Congratulations on your retirement. Bill’s got two combat tours, and he flew 375 combat missions in Vietnam. Bill, I suspect you flew into more than your fair share of hot LZs.

Earlier this month, President Obama presented the Medal of Honor to another Army Aviator and Vietnam Veteran, Charles Kettles. In 1967, Major Kettles volunteered to lead his flight of Hueys into the middle of a vicious firefight. They made that trip three times—to carry reinforcements in, and carry the wounded out. And then Major Kettles went back once more, alone—single ship, no cover, overloaded, leaking fuel, tail damaged, main rotor damaged, windshields gone.

Indomitable courage. Resilience and resolve. Grit. Veterans are the only ones who really know what it means to stand on that dangerous ground between freedom and tyranny. People miss that point, but it’s the heart of the matter. Our nation owes Veterans so much.

Last March, I stood with Vietnam Veterans at VA’s nationwide commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. To honor those who came home, and those who didn’t, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and I laid a wreath at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

There are 58,000 names chiseled in those giant pieces of polished black granite.

They were husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who sacrificed everything. And those who did return paid an enormous price—Veterans like Bill Bradshaw, like Charles Kettles, like so many of you here this morning. Let me ask all Vietnam Veterans to stand. Thank you. Welcome home.

Two years ago, I sat before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs for confirmation. People who had cut their teeth on Washington politics asked me, “Why do you want to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs?” I told them: There’s no higher calling. There’s no more noble mission. When President Obama asked, I didn’t hesitate. It’s an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of my fellow Veterans.

In my confirmation hearing, I pledged to work to transform the VA. I pledged to make dramatic changes. I pledged to improve your access to the high-quality care and benefits that you’ve earned and deserve. And I pledged to work with Congress, with our Veteran Service Organizations, and with other stakeholders.

After confirmation, my first stop was Phoenix. Then, Las Vegas. Then, Memphis and Reno and Palo Alto, and here in Charlotte. Across 23 cities, I consulted thousands of Veterans, VA employees, other stakeholders, and VSO leaders—the VFW’s first among them. We talked about how we could shape our MyVA transformation strategy, so VA would best serve Veterans.

And here’s the point. It isn’t my strategy, it’s yours. It’s not about me, it’s about all of you. It reflects your ideals, your insights, and your innovations.

You’ve heard many times that VA is broken. So I’ll answer one question: Can the Department of Veterans Affairs be fixed? Can it be transformed?

The answer is yes. Absolutely. Not only can it be transformed, transformation is well underway—and we’re already seeing results.

Changing VA means changing leadership. So it’s important you know that 13 of our top 18 executives are new since I became Secretary. These are world-class, enthusiastic business leaders and healthcare professionals. And eight of them are Veterans themselves.

It’s important you know that since early last year—March 2015—our new MyVA Advisory Committee has been hard at work. Committee members have brought extensive experience in customer service and organizational change. They’re leaders in business, in medicine, in government, and Veteran advocacy. Among them are Veterans like Major General Joe Robles.

After 30 years in the Army, Joe was President and CEO for USAA. Dr. Richard Carmona is a Special Forces Veteran of Vietnam, and he was the 17th Surgeon General of the United States. Navy Veteran Dr. Connie Mariano was the first military woman to serve as White House Physician to the President. She was the first woman Director of the White House Medical Unit.

And she’s the first Filipino American in US History to become a Navy Rear Admiral. And you all know, Vietnam Veteran and your Executive Director, Bob Wallace. Bob, thanks for helping us serve Veterans better.

These are innovative, resourceful, respected leaders who are advising us on transformation. They know business. They know customer service. They know Veterans.

It’s important you know we’re collaborating with world-class institutions like Johnson & Johnson, USAA, Starbucks, NASA, Kaiser Permanente, Hospital Corporation of America, Virginia Mason, Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, among others.

And it’s important you know we’re partnered with respected organizations like the YMCA, the Elks, the PenFed Foundation, LinkedIn, Coursera, Google, Walgreens, academic institutions, other Federal agencies, and many more.

New leadership, innovative collaboration, expanded partnerships—all of that matters. These are powerful, productive partnerships for Veterans.

Over the last two years, we’ve helped build a new national network of 67 Community Veterans Engagement Boards—CVEBs. CVEB partnerships leverage community assets, not just VA assets, to help ensure we implement local solutions to meet the needs of Veterans in our communities. Our goal is 100 CVEBs across the country by year’s end. And if there’s no CVEB in your community, let’s help make it happen.

Partnership are the foundation of our progress in ending Veteran Homelessness—VA, The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, businesses, criminal justice, mental health, nonprofits, the faith-based community, and philanthropists. That’s partnership from Federal to state to grass-roots level.

Partnerships are why 28 communities and two states have achieved an effective end to Veteran homelessness. They’re why over 360,000 Veterans and family members have been permanently housed, rapidly rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness. Nationally, Veteran homeless is down by 36 percent since 2010.

The 2016 numbers will be out soon, and we know we will see accelerated progress. We know it because of what we saw in Los Angeles, the worst city in the country for homelessness. Last year in L.A., we cut Veteran homelessness by more than 30 percent, about four times the rate of decline of previous years.

That means kids are getting their fathers back. Rudy’s combat experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan wracked him with PTSD. He ended up in jail. He ended up homeless. But now, he’s working on his Bachelor of Arts in social work. And he says life with his family is the best it’s ever been.

Lonnie went from serving his country to sleeping in cars. Now, he has a job, a home, and hope.

And because of him, his company is hiring other formerly homeless Veterans.

It means Veterans who were homeless nearly 20 years are working again—in good jobs, smiling, laughing, productive members of their community.

So it matters.

Let me talk about VA healthcare. You know VA’s the largest integrated healthcare system in the country. We have a unique lifetime relationship with our nine million patients, and a single electronic health record across the entire enterprise. Nobody else offers that.

Our mental health care’s integrated with primary care, with specialty care, and with psycho-social support to minimize barriers and help resolve problems early. Nobody else offers that.

VA healthcare is whole Veteran healthcare—body, mind, and soul, customized to meet Veteran needs. Yoga? Acupuncture? Sports therapy, music therapy, writing and art therapy? We validate and embrace what works to heal Veterans. And VA care is integrated with non-medical determinants of health and well-being that people often miss. I’m talking about things like education services, career transition support, fiduciary services, pension resources, disability compensation, and many others. Nobody offers all that.

And our Under Secretary of Health, Dr. David Shulkin, is changing our system to proactive, holistic healthcare and wellness. It’s time we got beyond just reacting to disease when it happens.

Let me talk about access to VA healthcare.

You should know that more Veterans are coming to VA for our care, and waiting less time.

You should know that last year Veterans had nearly five million more appointments than the previous year. Almost 57 million were in VA facilities, over 21 million were VA care in communities. Last March Veterans set a record for completed appointments—5.3 million inside VA, 730,000 more than March 2014. Last March Veterans were issued 370,000 authorizations for care in the community—twice as many as March 2014. Those authorizations represent more than 2 million appointments for Veterans in the months ahead.

Ninety-seven percent of appointments are now completed within 30 days of Veterans’ preferred date. Eighty-six percent are completed within seven days. And 22percent are completed the same-day.

You should know that average wait time for primary care is around five days, six days for specialty care, and two days for mental healthcare. And by December, you can expect same day access in primary care and same day access in mental healthcare. By the way, VA’s the only healthcare system that publicly reports on wait times as a measure of access.

Ninety percent of Veterans we’ve surveyed are “satisfied or completely satisfied” with the timeliness of their care. We won’t be satisfied until we hit 100 percent.

So we are making important progress. But you rarely hear that in the media. You’d never know we lead in many fields of research that benefit all Americans—PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, Spinal Cord Injury, prosthetics, genetics. You’d never know the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated your National Cemetery Administration No. 1 in customer service five times running. You’d never know J.D. Power rated your mail-order pharmacy best in the country in customer satisfaction six years running.

Not too long ago, all you heard about was our backlog—611,000 claims more than 125 days old. We added staff, adjusted policies, and designed an automated claims processing system. Today the backlog is down almost 90 percent, and the average time waiting for a completed claim is down 65 percent.

That’s the work of some industrious people—employees and leaders, many of them Veterans themselves. They’re building a world-class customer-service enterprise, but you never read about it.

Listening to some people, we’d never know there’s a decent person working at VA—Veteran or otherwise. Well, these last two years I’ve met and talked with thousands of VA employees and leaders in over 300 locations—many of them Veterans, like us.

They’re people like Victor Vasquez, a grounds-keeper at Fort Bliss National Cemetery. One older Veteran showed Victor a perfect place for a tree. So Victor, foreman James Porter, gardener Chris Smith, and Manny Vasquez with facilities maintenance got to work. When the Veteran came back a few days later, he found a tree, right where he wanted it, shading his wife’s grave.

Cathy DeNobile is a nurse with our D.C. Home-Based Primary Care Office. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, Cathy takes a holiday dinner to a Veteran she cares for. That Veteran served in Iraq—a guard at Abu Ghraib. He’s suffering severe PTSD, and he doesn’t get out of the house much.

Chuck Malden’s an Emergency Room Nurse just up the highway at Salisbury VAMC. One day Chuck was treating a Veteran for blisters, and he literally gave the Veteran the shoes off his feet. Why? Because the Veteran needed better shoes. Because they fit. Because he cared. Because that’s what we’re about.

Our employees are good people. I’m proud of them. They care about us. They want to serve us well. And we’re equipping them for success.

They’re not all perfect, not by a long shot. But it’s a gross misrepresentation to cherry-pick the worst and hold them up like they represent VA employees, just like it’s a gross misrepresentation to hold up a bad Veteran to represent all of us. It’s a distortion that sells papers, but it’s a distortion that hurts Veterans, and hurts the good people caring for them.

Some claim there’s no accountability at VA. Don't think we hold people accountable? Tell that to the VA employee in Augusta, Georgia, recently convicted of falsifying healthcare records. He’s facing sentencing that could include years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

All told, we’ve terminated over 3,750 employees in two years.

Some people think everything will be fine if we fire more people, more quickly. It’s not true. We can’t fire our way to excellence.

Over my 33 years in the private sector, I’ve never encountered an organization where firing people was a measure of leadership. Now, consequences for behavior inconsistent with our values are part of effective leadership, and we’re committed to that principle. But we won’t punish people based on opinions, recycled and embellished media accounts, or external pressure. It’s not in the best interest of the Veterans we serve.

Excellence is what we’re after. So the right dialogue is about forward-looking leadership, and sustainable accountability. Sustainable accountability gives you positive outcomes. Sustainable accountability is leaders and supervisors providing routine feedback, just like you remember in well-led, well-trained military outfits. It’s recognizing what’s going well, coaching and re-training when improvement’s necessary. It’s ensuring employees understand how daily work supports our mission, values, and strategy. It’s training leaders to lead and employees to exceed expectations, every day. And, yes, it’s taking corrective action when it’s warranted and supported by evidence.

These are pretty simple concepts for Veterans. These very same principles built the greatest fighting force in history.

We’re serious about the work we’re doing for you, and we have the opportunity to look back at 2016 as the year we turned the corner for Veterans. But there are some things we can’t do without the help of Congress.

It’s important that you know the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a budget nearly equal to the President’s request. The House proposed a $1.5 billion reduction. That will hurt Veterans, impede some critical initiatives to transform VA into the high-performing organization you deserve.

You should know there are more than 100 legislative proposals for Veterans in the President’s 2017 Budget. Many are vital to maintaining our ability to purchase non-VA care.

Only Congress can modernize and clarify our purchased care authorities so there’s a strong foundation for your access to Community Care in years ahead.

Only Congress can clear the way for us to streamline our Care in the Community systems and programs. We submitted our plan last October, but we need congressional action to execute it.

Only Congress can enact legislation so we can better compete with the private sector, get the best medical professionals to choose to serve at VA. And only Congress can modernize the archaic appeals process. Last year, the Board was adjudicating an appeal that originated 25 years ago. It had been decided more than 27 times. Under current law with no significant change in resources, the number of Veterans awaiting a decision will soar by 179 percent by 2027—from 500,000 to nearly 1.3 million. So VA, the VFW and other Veteran Service Organizations, Veteran advocates, the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, and the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers shaped a simplified, streamlined, and fair appeals plan.

It’s your plan. We’ve urged ambitious action by Congress, and we need them to pass the law. In five years, you could have appeals resolved within one year of filing. The legislation costs nothing, and it will be more efficient and less costly over time. The alternative? Devoting more resources to a broken system and significant sustained funding to hire more employees administering a broken system. You’ll be waiting 10 years for a final decision on your appeal.

It’s unacceptable to me. I bet it’s unacceptable to you.

These proposals require congressional action. And VSO’s can get it done.

Eighty-six years ago last week, VSOs made the Veterans Bureau happen. Nine years later, VSOs made the Veterans Administration happen. VSOs got us the GI Bill. You got us the Montgomery GI Bill. You got us the post-9/11 GI Bill. You’re why President Reagan made VA a Department—giving all of us “a seat at the table of our national affairs.” And you’re the ones who can keep Veterans in control of how, when, and where THEY wish to be served.

And that’s what MyVA is about.

Now, you’ll hear lots more recommendations about VA’s future. Some have argued VA can best serve Veterans by shutting down VA healthcare altogether. They argue that closing VHA is the “bold transformation” Veterans and families need, want, and deserve. I suspect that proposal serves some parties somewhere pretty well. But it’s not transformational—it’s more along the lines of dereliction.

It doesn’t serve Veterans well, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

So make sure there’s substance to those discussions, that they’re about Veterans’ interests, and not something else. Make sure they’re anchored to the service and sacrifice, the sense of duty and honor, that Veterans represent, and only Veterans understand.

It’s your VA. It always has been.

God bless you and your families. God bless Veterans. And God bless the United States of America.