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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

DAV Legislative Seminar
Atlanta, Georgia
July 31, 2016

First, I have an announcement to make.

It’s been an honor to work with my good friend Johnny Isakson on helping Veterans since I have arrived, and I can’t think of a better time or place to make this announcement than here in Atlanta sitting right beside Johnny. The number of Veterans receiving mental health care from VA has increased by 80 percent since 2005 to over 1.6 million Veterans. And the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) is part of keeping our sacred trust to help Veterans in need. As we have continued to serve Veterans in crisis, we have needed to continue to expand VCL’s offerings and capacity.

As part of that ongoing effort, I am happy to announce that we are going to be opening a second VCL call center right here in Atlanta, which will be online by the end of this year. That’s going to mean 200 more responders ready to talk, chat, and text with Veterans in crisis, 24/7/365.

Now, before the floor is open to discussion, I’d like to make a few quick points about where VA is in caring for those who have “borne the battle,” our Veterans.

We have the opportunity right now to make 2016 the year we turned the corner for Veterans.

Here’s what I mean.

In my confirmation hearing two years ago, I pledged to work to transform the VA. And I pledged to work with our Veteran Service Organizations, with other stakeholders Congress, and with Congress in that transformation.

After confirmation, I consulted thousands of Veterans, VA employees, other stakeholders, VSO leadership, and members of Congress. Those discussions shaped our MyVA transformation strategy so VA could best serve Veterans.

Our five long-term MyVA strategies are the framework to transform all of VA by combining functions, simplifying operations, and providing Veterans care and services so that they see VA as MyVA—a world-class, customer-focused, Veteran-centered service organization.

Our five strategies are improving the Veteran experience, improving the employee experience, achieving support services excellence, establishing a culture of continuous performance improvement, and enhancing strategic partnerships.

Now, people still ask if VA can be fixed, if it can be transformed.

The answer is yes. Absolutely. Transformation is well underway, and we’re already seeing results. And we’re doing a lot on our own with what we’re given. But the fact is that there are some things we can’t do without the help of Congress.

So we asked our two congressional committees to hold a hearing on MyVA and our 12 Breakthrough Priorities for 2016—12 quick-win priorities designed to improve the delivery of timely care and benefits to Veterans fast. We thought that it was immensely important that members of Johnny’s Committee and the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs have a deep understanding of exactly how we were transforming VA. We thought that understanding would be important to subsequent decisions and help shape legislation that serves Veterans.

Johnny did. And it was.

In January, we appeared before the Senate Committee on Veterans. In the hearing, we discussed in detail the legislation necessary to transform VA. Chairman Isakson assigned a member of both parties to work on each piece of legislation—a thoroughly bipartisan effort.

The product of their hard work is the Veterans First Act, and it was passed unanimously by the Committee. This important omnibus includes many of the legislative solutions we’ve been urging, and nine of our top legislative priorities.

For instance, it provides enhanced-use lease authority so we can implement the Master Plan for our West Los Angeles Campus. That will greatly expand ability to end Veteran homelessness in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and it will serve as a model for the whole country on what it takes to end homelessness.

Veterans First will go a long way in bringing the best private-sector talent to VA to serve Veterans. These are critical compensation reforms for network and hospital directors and flexibility on the 80-hour pay period maximum for certain medical professionals. The private sector has this flexibility, and it makes sense in running a hospital.

It provides the Secretary of VA some measured spending flexibility to respond to Veterans’ emerging needs and overcome artificial funding restrictions on providing Veterans care and benefits.

The biggest thing missing in Veterans First is appeals reform. And it is big for Veterans.

Why’s it missing? At the time, we didn’t have the Congressional Budget Office’s scoring. Now we have the CBO scoring, and appeals reform is free.

Here’s why appeals reform is so critical for Veterans. 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. The legislation costs nothing, and it will be more efficient and less costly over time. In five years, Veterans could have appeals resolved within one year of filing.

The alternative? Devote more resources to the broken system and fund more employees to administer the broken system. And Veterans will be waiting 10 years for a final decision on appeals.

So, if the Veterans First Act becomes law, VA will have 75 percent of the most important legislation we’ve been advocating for transformation. The Act will be instrumental to turning the corner for Veterans, critical to get transformation done.

We just need to add appeals reform.

As I said in my remarks earlier, VSOs can get it done. Veterans need VSOs to tell the Senate to get the Veterans First Act to the floor. Veterans need VSOs to tell the Senate to amend it with appeals and pass it.

To close, let me once again publicly thank Chairman Isakson for his strong support of Veterans, VA, and our transformation. He’s been incredibly proactive, holding hearing after hearing for truly productive discussions that can go a long way in helping Veterans. And his leadership has shown that a bipartisan Senate can work.

Veterans First proves it.

Thank you.