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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Elizabeth Dole Foundation – Veterans Affairs Empowering Caregivers Conference
Washington, DC
September 28, 2016

Steve Schwab, thanks for that kind introduction. Senator Dole, Elizabeth, my deep thanks for what you do for Veteran caregivers and for your friendship. Yours is the highest example of passion, of compassion, and vision. Thank you for co-hosting today’s events with us, and thank you for your leadership. You’re a caregiver of so many, in so many ways.

Thanks, as well, to all the great and generous partners Senator Dole just recognized.

And let me speak directly to all the Veteran caregivers. I admire what you do. It’s a legacy as old as the nation itself. And it’s profoundly important for Veterans in so many ways. It’s important because your work eases the suffering of our Nation’s beloved wounded, ill, and injured Veterans. It’s important because it’s your gentle push—sometimes more push than gentle—that gets Veterans in your care moving to the right appointment, the right treatment, the right equipment, at the right time. It’s important because of the example of service and sacrifice you represent to all of us. No one gives more to our Nation’s Veterans than you do. I’d like all the Veteran caregivers to stand so we can recognize them, thank them, together.

Yesterday afternoon at the Capitol we had a great start to the Hidden Heroes Campaign. That was only a glimpse of the kind of powerful, productive attention the Elizabeth Dole Foundation will continue to bring to Veteran caregivers. This campaign needs to become a powerful, national movement. People want to do good. People want to help Veterans. And Elizabeth Dole and her Foundation are showing the way. I think it’s exactly what President Lincoln meant in his Second Inaugural when he directed the nation to care for those who have “borne the battle,” and their families.

VA announced our expanded partnership with Coursera that brings caregivers into the fold. We announced our expansion of beneficiary travel program benefits to include Uber and Lyft as eligible ride share options for caregivers. And I promised yesterday to tell you today about what Amazon’s doing.

By show of hands, how many of you have used your digital device already today? iPhone or Android? Tablet? Laptop? How many are using them right now? Our cell phones, our tablets, our laptops and desktops, our digital devices are everywhere. So, VA’s using digital devices to transform how we care for Veterans.

We have an app that lets you and your Veterans access their official VA medical record and enter information about their health. It’s called MyVA Health. We’re field testing an app right now that’ll let you and your Veterans schedule or request a primary care or mental health care appointment at the facility they’re receiving care. Altogether, VA has over 30 apps to augment and improve care Veterans are receiving. Nineteen apps are available right now, and 12 more are in the final stages of development and testing. You can find them at www.Mobile.VA.Gov. Take a look and see how they might help. We’re putting the information Veterans want at your fingertips as you support them.

Amazon’s helping put some great information at your fingertips, too, with their Kindle resources. Together with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation and Veterans Affairs, Amazon’s created a library of books we hope you’ll find helpful. Books on legal matters, children’s books—all selected by caregivers and experts on caregiving. And you can access the caregivers’ library from any mobile device. In a little bit, you’ll hear more exciting news about what Amazon’s doing for some wonderful caregivers.

Nearly a decade ago, VA established our Caregiver Support Program. It was just a pilot program that started, essentially, to determine how VA could improve assistance for Caregivers. Here we are nine years later, and I think we can agree that VA’s Caregiver Support Program succeeded in the proof-of-concept phase.

Our National Caregiver Support Line—1-855-260-3274—has fielded over a quarter-million calls. They’ve been providing referrals to VA’s Caregiver Support Coordinators—there’s one at every VA Medical Center, by the way. And, sometimes, they’re simply listening, providing some emotional support, if that’s all that’s needed.

Over 34,000 caregivers so far have completed the comprehensive caregiving training we developed with Easter Seals. More than 32,000 caregivers have participated in VA’s Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Caregivers. Four thousand have registered for VA’s Building Better Caregivers, our six-week online, interactive course that we deliver in partnership with the National Council on Aging.

Over the last three years, 3,400 Veteran caregivers have taken advantage of VA’s Veteran Caregivers series. These four courses—about three hours each—are helping caregivers with problem-solving, dealing with stress, maintaining their own health, and more. And so far, 350 caregivers are participating in our Caregiver Peer Support Mentoring Program. The Peer Support Mentoring Program is linking less experienced caregivers with more experienced Caregivers, so they can share some advice, experiences . . . their wisdom.

So VA has a lot of people and a lot of different resources offering some pretty important support to caregivers to help them succeed better, to help them cope better, to help them help their Veterans better. But there are about five and a half million military and Veteran caregivers in the United States. Over one million of those are post-9/11 Veteran caregivers. And for all that good work, today VA’s touching only a fraction of them.

Last week, I spoke to the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care—C-TAC—at their summit. Like you, CTAC is about looking ahead. They’re working to understand today’s challenges with the aging population and beginning to prepare for an uncertain future. A few of those points are instructive to this discussion, so let’s talk about the future for a moment. In 1960, only 2.2 million Veterans were 65 years old or older. By 2020, nearly 10 million Veterans will be 65 or older. And right behind them are our post-9/11 Veterans, our youngest Veteran population, who have been at war for the last 15 years. We don’t know exactly how their wounds will affect them as they age, which means we don’t have a good enough idea what that will mean to their caregivers.

So the challenges those 1.1 million post-9/11 caregivers are seeing today is just a glimpse of demands they may see by 2020, 2030, and 2040. All of which is to say we have some challenges ahead. Understanding those challenges, preparing for them, is the reason we’re here today.

But we can do it. The strong support of Congress will be invaluable, as will the support, hard work, and dedication of Veterans Service Organizations. And it’s going to take a coordinated effort from the federal to the grass-roots level. It’s going to take partnering with world class institutions, non-profit and for-profit organizations, just like we’re doing here today.

Here are some examples of what those kinds of partnerships do for Veterans and their families.

  • Veteran unemployment is down by half in the last five years.
  • Unemployment for Post-9/11 Veterans is down by more than 70 percent.
  • Over 360,000 Veterans and family members have been housed, rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness.
  • Twenty-eight communities and two states have achieved an effective end to Veteran homelessness.
  • Veteran homelessness is down 30 percent in Los Angeles, the worst city in the country for homelessness. Veteran homeless is down nationwide by 47 percent since 2010. We’ve cut it in half.
  • Eighty-four Community Veteran Engagement Boards established across the country in a little over a year. These Community Boards—CVEBs—are local partnerships meeting Veterans’ needs with both community and VA assets. Our goal is 100 Veteran Engagement Boards across the country by year’s end.

Here’s the point. With vital, collaborative networks extending from national to state to local government, there’s no limit to what we can do for Veterans, for Veterans’ caregivers.

Earlier this month I was in Togus, Maine, helping celebrate the 150th Anniversary of our very first facility. The National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers was the cornerstone of a network of National Homes that would become the Veterans Administration in 1930. Back then, it was about getting ready for what most everyone knew was coming as hundreds of thousands of Union Veterans aged. They’d need specialized care for their injuries, which were unique to warfare, and unique to that very particular war. And they knew that if they weren’t suffering yet, then in five, ten, 15, 20 years down the road, they would be. Thanks to some visionary leaders, that first, single, modest home for Veterans is now the Department of Veterans Affairs—over 350,000 people serving Veterans at over 1,200 health care facilities across the country.

Veteran caregivers and all those working to support them have their own visionary. Senator Dole’s leading you, inspiring you . . . inspiring me . . . and thousands of others. Yesterday, she announced a vision for Veteran caregivers. Elizabeth described “an America where every military caregiver is empowered, appreciated, and recognized for their service to our nation.”

It’s going to take some incredible, innovative people to achieve that vision. And I think we’re looking at them.

Thank you. God bless all of you and your families. And God bless our great country.