Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) 121st Annual Convention (Virtual)
July 24, 2020
Hello, I’m Robert Wilkie, and I’m honored to join you for your 121st annual convention.
The fact that you are meeting virtually is a reminder that this has been a challenging year — for VA, for our Nation, and for the VFW as you work to ensure Veterans are respected for their service, receive the care and benefits they’ve earned, and are fully recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made.
But there is a lot of good news to share.
Last year, Congress approved a $220 billion budget for VA, reflecting renewed trust in VA from Veterans, Congress and the American people. Congress is likely to approve an increase in this year, and the reason is simple:
This is not the VA of 2014. Today’s VA is rededicated to the task President Lincoln assigned us 155 years ago, “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
Our record tells the story of VA’s turnaround as we’ve implemented major reforms.
Under the MISSION Act, we’ve successfully given Veterans real, permanent choice. We completed more than 59.9 million episodes of care in the last fiscal year, a record high, and 1.7 million more than the year before.
We implemented critical updates to the GI Bill under the Harry Colmery Act and took on the task of caring for thousands of Blue Water Navy Veterans.
And we continue to make progress on the difficult initiative of conforming our electronic health records to those in the Defense Department.
We push on with these reforms even as we simultaneously cope with the significant challenges posed by a global epidemic.
Though COVID-19 was a shock to health care systems around the world, your VA responded quickly to mitigate the effects of this virus. We took steps that allowed us to keep serving Veterans, including the immediate implementation of emergency management procedures, expanding telehealth access and prohibiting visitors to VA nursing homes and spinal cord injury centers.
Here’s where we stand: As of late June, we have tested more than 279,000 Veterans for COVID-19, and over 232,000 of those tests were returned negative.
More than 16,000 Veterans nationwide were diagnosed with the virus. But over 80 percent of those Veterans are 14 days past their last positive test and recovering at home.
We are caring for about 2,100 Veterans across the country with the virus. We have about 1,100 positive COVID tests among our VA employees, but our infection rate among staff is about one half of one percent—incredibly low compared to other health care systems in America and around the world.
We’ve also hired more than 22,000 new employees since late March, including over 4,400 registered nurses.
I’m also proud to report that we have a very low incidence of COVID infection in our nursing homes, even though many non-VA nursing homes and Veterans homes became hotspots.
This stability has allowed us to fully engage in our “Fourth Mission,” which is to support the national health care system in times of stress.
We’ve accepted 54 missions from FEMA, 32 of which are ongoing, in 46 states and territories.
By April, we were accepting requests to open dozens of our beds to non-Veteran patients in New York and New Jersey.
And we deployed 582 VA staff to community nursing homes around America, and 411 to help state Veterans homes.
This crisis has taken a toll. It claimed the lives of more than 1,400 Veterans and 38 VA staff members.
But even during this unprecedented event, VA’s standing among Veterans continues to improve. Despite the challenges, the outlook for VA is strong. Recent survey results from you, the VFW, show that a record high 90 percent of Veterans trust VA care.
This is good news for your members. It shows that VA can be trusted to turn a budget increase into real results for Veterans and build trust for future budget debates.
I’d like to close by thanking you for your new initiative to highlight how Veterans continue to serve this nation even after leaving the military.
Your #StillServing campaign reveals the character of so many American Veterans. It shows that their love for this nation doesn’t end just because they became civilians, and that there are always ways to serve America, at any age.
But it’s also a model for how Americans should be working together as we continue to deal with the fallout from COVID-19, and a new wave of civil unrest that is raising questions about whether we are one nation.
The clarity so many of your Veterans bring to these issues is very much needed, and it’s my hope that your effort resonates throughout America.
With that, I’d like to offer you best wishes for a productive 2020 virtual convention and to your new National Commander-in-Chief, Hal Roesch. And to your outgoing Commander, “Doc” Schmitz – thank you for your leadership and your many contributions to Veterans.
May God bless our Veterans and those currently serving, and may He continue to bless our Great Nation. Thank you.