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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert A. McDonald

Code of Support Foundation Holiday Dinner
Arlington, VA
December 3, 2016

I know what’s on your mind this evening. So I’ll address that first so we can get to other, more important topics. I want to talk about football.

By a show of hands, how many here served in Marines? Navy? Army? Well, next Saturday, Army takes Navy . . . I mean, takes on Navy . . . in Baltimore for the 117th matchup. Odds-makers and pollsters are giving Navy a big win. I quit listening to pollsters on November 9.

If I was a Navy man, and a betting man—and I’m neither—my money would be on Army. Every time I hear someone say, “Navy’s got it in the bag,” I get a little more excited. But just to be safe, everyone, join me: “Go Army! Beat Navy!”

General Salisbury, thank you for that kind introduction. And thanks, Lee, and everyone, for letting me share some time with you this evening. It’s a real honor.

What Objective Rally Point is about, what Code of Support is about . . . let me just say that what you’re doing for Veterans is one of my highest priorities. That is, bringing Veterans and businesses together. That is, bringing Veterans and local communities closer together, arm in arm, exactly where they should be. It’s the right thing to do for Veterans. It’s the right thing to do for communities. And it’s the right thing to do for business.

I worked at Procter & Gamble for 33 years. And I learned about what makes an organization a high-performance organization. Now, I can’t tell you which strategies you need or which systems and processes are right for your own particular business. But I can tell you where to find passionate leaders forged in high-performing cultures to lead in business. Right here in this room, and among the ranks of our Nation’s 22 million Veterans.

When my friend and West Point classmate Sloan Gibson is talking about Veterans and jobs, he asks a few simple questions. They go something like this. Can we imagine any situation where we don’t need more people who put service before self? Who can bridge differences to accomplish great things? Who will persevere even in the face of daunting obstacles? And whom we can trust implicitly to choose a harder right rather than an easier wrong?

Well, I know Soldiers. I know Veterans. And I know business. I can’t imagine any enterprise that won’t thrive with Veterans.

Tonight, I’d like to share three lesson’s I’ve learned about serving Veterans that I think are worth committing to memory.

First, VA is immensely important to Veterans. The fact is—whether in prosthetics, geriatrics, PTSD and TBI treatment, or polytrauma care, to say nothing of disability and education benefits, home loans or homeless rescues, and final honors in our national cemeteries—there’s simply no other one institution like VA positioned to deliver a broad spectrum of Veteran-specific care and services to the one percent of our population who serve.

Second, America needs VA. Here’s a quick example; there are more, equally as powerful examples. VA spends about $1.8 billion annually on research. Over the years, VA researchers and clinicians have made a host of significant advances in health care and Veterans health care. While they’ve been absolutely crucial to maintaining the quality and quantity of VA care, they’re also advancing medical science and building a better American health care community.

Think of it. It was VA researchers who pioneered the modern electronic medical records. It was VA researchers who gave us the implantable cardiac pacemaker. It was VA researchers who performed the first successful liver transplants. The nicotine patch? VA researchers. Genetic risk factors for schizophrenia? For Alzheimer’s? For Werner’s syndrome, among others? VA researchers. And artificial limbs that move naturally when stimulated by electrical brain impulses? VA researchers. VA researchers were the ones who demonstrated that patients with total paralysis could control robotic arms using only their thoughts.

Thanks to the work of VA researchers, the world now has the largest, most comprehensive genome data set humanity has created—it’s called the Million Veteran Program, or MVP. MVP’s the cornerstone for making precision medicine and tailored medical treatments a reality for every American. MVP’s already contributing to health care research—from Gulf War Illness to PTSD, from schizophrenia and bipolar illness to Age-related Macular Degeneration susceptibility, among others. MVP is about improving Veteran health care, yes. But it’s about improving health care for every American, for the world.

Here’s a third big lesson, and it’s why we’re here tonight celebrating the Code of Support Foundation’s work. VA simply can’t do everything we need to do for Veterans alone. We can’t. Even though VA’s the largest integrated health care system in the country, we need your help. Even though we have a unique lifetime relationship with our 9 million patients, and a single electronic health record across the entire enterprise, we need your help. Even though our mental health care is integrated with primary care, with specialty care, and with psycho-social support to minimize barriers and help resolve problems early, we need your help, and the help of your local communities.

VA health care is whole Veteran health care—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 people often miss. I’m talking about things like education services, career transition support, pension resources, disability compensation, and many others.

Nobody else offers all that. Nobody. But even with all that, VA simply can’t do everything we need to do for Veterans without the help of the very same people and communities on whose behalf you served and sacrificed. I think that’s an important relationship. When we were shaping our MyVA transformation strategies, we knew we had to optimize VA’s unique competencies in health care, benefits delivery, and memorial affairs—some of those elements I just outlined. At the same time, we knew we had to dramatically enhance our external partnerships if we were going to support Veterans in areas where VA’s less well postured to deliver direct service.

That’s why we’re partnering with respected companies like Google, Walgreens, Bristol-Myers Squibb, and others. We’re partnering with organizations like the YMCA, the Elks, the PenFed Foundation, LinkedIn, Coursera, Google, Walgreens, academic institutions, other Federal agencies, and many more, extending our outreach to Veterans. It’s why retooling VA’s authorities for purchased Care in the Community has been one of our very top priorities for the 114th Congress.

A year and a half ago, we sent the VA Purchased Health Care Streamlining and Modernization Act to Congress. So far, nothing’s happened. But it’s important to make sure Veterans receive the necessary care they earned through the fullest complement of non-VA providers, without sacrificing the foundational VA health services so many Veterans prefer, and rely on. So we’ll work just as hard on that requirement—and many others still unfulfilled—with the 115th Congress when it convenes on the third day of January. We have to get common-sense legislation that helps Veterans through.

We can’t do everything we need to do for Veterans alone. That’s why in just over a year, VA field leaders have helped their own local communities build a national network of 101 Community Veterans Engagement Boards—CVEBs. These are local leaders helping communities ensure we implement local solutions to meet their Veterans’ needs. These boards leverage community assets, not just VA assets, to serve their Veterans.

We could never solve the homeless Veteran problems alone. Community partnerships with cities, states, VA, and other federal agencies are why over 360,000 Veterans and family members have been housed, rehoused, or prevented from falling into homelessness since 2010. Strategic partnerships are why three states and 33 communities have achieved a functional end to Veteran homelessness. Veteran homelessness nationwide is down by 47 percent since 2010. Together, we’ve cut it in half. I suspect a good number of the folks in this room had something to do with that.

The very work you all are doing helping Veterans transition, helping local communities and businesses embrace Veterans, is squarely behind the decline in Veteran unemployment. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 722,000 unemployed Veterans in the labor force. In 2014, that number dropped to 573,000. In September, we were down to 469,000 unemployed Veterans across the United States. Over the last five years, Veteran unemployment’s down by over half. Unemployment for Post-9/11 Veterans has dropped by 70 percent. I suspect a good number of the folks in this room had something to do with that, too.

All of that work, all the progress is because you and so many others across the United States have been reaching out and embracing Veterans. Well, that’s exactly what President Lincoln meant when he told us to care for those “who shall have borne the battle” and for their families. That’s what the fourth principle of your Code of Support rightly demands—that we never forget our nation’s “responsibility to provide for [Veterans] their continued well-being, and meaningful compensation.” And I think President Lincoln would be proud—of the work you’ve done, the work you’re doing, and our commitment to the difficult work ahead of us.

Now, we’ve all heard—and we’ll keep hearing—lots of recommendations for VA’s future. It’s going to take some work to make sure there’s substance to those discussions. It’s going to take some work to make sure they’re about Veterans’ best interests, and not something else, to make sure they’re anchored to your service and your sacrifice, to that sense of duty and honor Veterans represent, and that only Veterans understand.

Some argue VA can best care for Veterans by shutting down VA health care altogether. They argue that closing VHA is a kind of “bold transformation” Veterans and their families need, want, and deserve. I know business. I know what transformational change means. And I know it’s not easy. But that kind of proposal isn’t transformational. It’s more along the lines of dereliction. I suspect that proposal serves some parties somewhere pretty well. But it doesn’t serve Veterans well, and it doesn’t sit well with me.

It’s important that we remember—and that we remind—caring for Veterans is a bipartisan obligation. It has been in the past. It should be in the future.

Caring for Veterans is a sacred privilege and trust. It’s not a bargaining chip for political expediency.

It’s your VA. It belongs to Veterans, their families, and the American people committed to keeping faith with them. Simple words of West Point’s Cadet prayer resonate—“choose the harder right” over “the easier wrong.”

Serving Veterans as Secretary of VA has been the greatest honor of my life. Thank you for your work, your commitment, and your enduring devotion to Veterans. And thank you for being a friend to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

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