Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
American Legion 2020 Health Care Providers and Physicians of the Year (Virtual)
March 2, 2021
Bill, thanks for inviting me and giving me this opportunity so early in my tenure to share a few thoughts with American Legion’s leadership. And Ralph Bozella, Chair of Legion’s VA and Rehab Commission, thanks to you, too, for all for your hard work and devotion to Veterans. I look forward to working closely with you to serve our Vets as well as they’ve served us.
I’m humbled by the immense privilege and honor of leading VA. There is no more sacred obligation nor noble undertaking than upholding our promises to our Veterans, whether they came home decades ago or just days ago. You all know this is true. You live it in the Legion.
For more than 101 years, now, the Legion, the oldest Veterans Service Organization in the country, has been one of VA’s and Veterans’ strongest advocates. And we are privileged to have you as a partner. Our partnership matters. It’s critical. And that partnership will be especially important in the months ahead as we work together to do what’s best for Veterans during these challenging times. And I will use every opportunity to build a stronger relationship with you. And that goes for all our Veterans Service Organizations.
Over 155 years ago, President Lincoln charged a wounded nation to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” and for their families, caregivers, and survivors. Lincoln’s vision gave rise to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the largest integrated health care system in the United States, with over nine million Veterans enrolled. The American Legion continues to support Lincoln’s vision by influencing how Veterans receive their care through your legislative activity and your advocacy for Veterans.
In 2017, at the urging of a White House Fellow, the Legion created the VA Physician and VA Healthcare Provider of the Year Award to honor individuals whose professional achievements live up to Lincoln’s ideal. This award is about two things. First, it’s about celebrating some of VA’s great public servants. And, second, it’s about recognizing their commitment to the advancement of new ideas, new innovations, and new initiatives in medicine that help and heal our Veterans.
I know this award ordinarily goes to a single top doctor and healthcare professional who exemplify the highest standards in their medical field. But this has not been an ordinary year. VA healthcare professionals have been working around the clock, tirelessly, during this pandemic to battle the spread and provide the best healthcare to Veterans and, in many cases, to Americans who are not Veterans. And lately they have been working tirelessly to get vaccines into Veterans’ arms.
Who are those VA healthcare workers on the frontline who deserve this award?
They include people like Dr. Beth Ripley, director of the VHA 3D Printing Network. Beth created personalized prosthetics and models of organs to help surgeons as they prepare for operations. Thanks to Beth and her team, more than 30 hospitals now have 3D printing capabilities. And Beth’s leading the charge to expand this capability to all VHA medical centers. When the pandemic hit the nation, Dr. Ripley and VHA joined with the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute of Health, and other organizations to use that 3D printing technology to create face masks, shields, and other personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers.
They include people like Chief Pharmacist Dr. Ivan Cephas. I met Dr. Cephas at the D.C. VA Medical Center last week. He and his team lead the effort in vaccinating more Veterans each day by squeezing every drop they can out of every vial of Pfizer COVID vaccine.
There are people like Sophia Didley, a nurse who serves at the Perry Point VA Medical Center in Maryland. Sophia, a 24-year Air Force Veteran, left the safety of her home and family to deploy to New Jersey. There, she assisted with the COVID-19 response at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home and the Waters Edge Healthcare Rehabilitation Center, a private rehabilitation facility. Sophia volunteered where she was needed most to support those Veterans and non-Veterans suffering from COVID-19.
They include people like Dr. Jane Kim, VA’s Chief Consultant for Preventive Medicine, who serves as a primary care physician at the Durham VA Medical Center. She has overseen VA’s efforts to administer more than 2.1 million doses of the vaccine to VA patients, employees, and federal partners at more than 250 VA sites. Just last week, VA vaccinated its one millionth Veteran with their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine after VA clinician Dr. Michael Lewis at the Greater LA VA, and others, helped hundreds of Vets and staff volunteers initially test their safety and efficacy for all Americans.
They include courageous VA employees like Cheryl Owens, who was one of the first African American employees to get the vaccine at the Central Alabama VA. Cheryl wanted to be an example of “trusting the science,” she said, for other African American Veterans and staff members who were hesitant about the vaccine.
They include doctors like Neil Evans, Kathy Frisbee, and Kevin Galpin, who expanded telehealth efforts to ensure that our Veterans continued to receive the best care from the comfort and safety of their own homes. Between March 1st, 2020, and January 30th, 2021, VA increased in-home and off-site telehealth visits by nearly 1,800 percent, with an average of about 200,000 video visits each week. More than 40,000 VA providers—including primary care and mental health professionals—have offered video telehealth services at least once at more than 1,400 VA facilities.
We’re extremely proud of these leaders. There are more VA healthcare providers out there on the front lines, and more stories of their service and sacrifices for Veterans who have given their all to this great nation.
They are part of a long, proud legacy. They stand on the shoulders of so many who have gone before them, building VA’s reputation of excellence in medicine over the course of 75 years. For three quarters of a century, with ground-breaking research and innovations in medicine, VA health professionals have shaped not only VA’s delivery of care, but also the kind of care available to all Americans.
Remember, it was a VA doctor, Thomas Starzl, who performed the first successful liver transplant. It was VA doctor William Chardack and engineer Wilson Greatbatch, along with Army Veteran Dr. Andrew Gage, who produced the first implantable cardiac pacemaker. It was VA doctors Jed Rose, Murray Jarvik, and Daniel Rose who developed the nicotine patch. And it was a VA study led by Dr. H. Daniel Lewis that proved an aspirin a day reduces risk in heart patients. The very first U.S. VA clinical trials led to life-saving treatments and vaccines for the nation.
Three Nobel Prizes, seven Lasker Awards, and other distinguished accomplishments too numerous to recite, speak to the profound contributions they’ve made. So, for these healthcare professionals we celebrate today, leading in healthcare, leading in research and development is nothing new.
It’s what they do. Their heroic work this past year is about writing another fascinating chapter in that remarkable story. Today, you honor all of them. And it is my distinct honor to accept the American Legion's VA Physician and VA Healthcare Provider of the Year Award on behalf of all VHA healthcare professionals.
May God bless our troops, our Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors. And may we always work together to provide them the care and support they have earned.