Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie - Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
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Veterans Crisis Line Badge

Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Secretary Robert Wilkie

Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and Auxiliary Virtual Salute
Washington, DC, (Via Video)
July 26, 2020

Hi, I’m Robert Wilkie, and I’m honored to join you for your 2020 “DAV & Auxiliary Virtual Salute” as DAV prepares to celebrate its centennial anniversary.

What an accomplishment!

100 years of empowering Veterans to lead high-quality lives with respect and dignity, ensuring they have the full range of benefits available to them, fighting for their interests with Congress, and educating all Americans about the sacrifices and needs of Veterans.

The fact that you are meeting virtually is a reminder that this has been a challenging year for DAV, for Veterans, and for our Nation. But there is much good news to share.

Last year, Congress approved a $220 billion dollar budget for VA.

This is not the VA you read about in 2014. We are 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 gave Veterans real, permanent choice, completing more than 59.9 million internal 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 Harry Colmery 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 care 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 pandemic.

Though COVID-19 was a shock to health care systems around the world, your VA responded quickly to mitigate the impact. We took steps that allowed us to keep serving Veterans, including 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 July, VA has tested more than 420,000 Veterans for COVID-19, and over 340,000 of those tests were returned negative.

More than 29,000 Veterans nationwide were diagnosed with the virus. But 75 percent of those Veterans are 14 days past their last positive test and recovering at home.

We are caring for less than 5,000 Veterans with the virus. We have about 2,000 positive tests among VA employees, but our infection rate among staff is less than one percent—incredibly low compared to other health care systems.

We’ve hired more than 30,000 new employees since March, including over 5,200 registered nurses.

I’m also proud to report that we have a very low incidence of COVID infection in our Community Living Centers, even though many non-VA nursing homes and state 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 emergency.

We’ve accepted 69 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.

We’ve deployed 854 employees on various missions, including 294 to community nursing homes across America and 330 to state Veterans homes.

This crisis has taken a toll. It has claimed the lives of more than 1,900 Veterans and 40 members of our VA family.

Even during this unprecedented event, VA’s standing among Veterans continued to improve. Despite the challenges, recent survey results show that a record high 90 percent of Veterans trust VA health care.

That’s great news. 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 important work on behalf of Veterans and their families.

You established a COVID-19 Relief Fund to provide help to unemployed service-connected disabled Veterans. So far, more than 6,000 have received over 1.5 million dollars in relief. Your benefits specialists are still working claims, and you’re hosting virtual career fairs for Veterans, transitioning military members, and spouses.

And you have continued with your other critical work—DAV provides more than 600,000 rides to Veterans attending medical appointments and assists with over 200,000 benefit claims. In 2019, you helped Veterans receive more than $21 billion dollars in earned benefits. Your 1,300 chapters and more than 1 million members across America help provide our nation’s heroes and their families the resources they need to ensure that we keep promises made to them.

In closing, I’d like to offer you best wishes for your next 100 years—100 years of helping Veterans, and congratulate your National Commander, “Butch” Whitehead, your National Adjutant Marc Burgess, Washington Executive Randy Reese and Executive Director Barry Jesinoski for jobs well done. Thanks for your leadership and your many contributions to the well-being of America’s Veterans.

 May God bless all of our Veterans, those currently serving, and may He continue to bless this Great Nation. Thank you.