Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs
Remarks by Secretary Denis R. McDonough
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Hearing on the State of the Department of Veterans Affairs
December 1, 2021
Chairman Tester, Ranking Member Moran, distinguished Members of the Committee: thank you for your support of Veterans, and for the opportunity to testify today on the state of VA.
Our mission at VA is very simple—and it goes back to what I said when I first testified before you back in January: we must serve Veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors as well as they’ve served us.
That’s the promise we make at VA—and between the pandemic and everything else that’s happened this year, keeping that promise to Vets has never been more important than it is right now.
Fortunately, throughout the past year, VA employees—many of whom are Vets themselves—have stepped up across the country to fulfill that obligation.
Employees like Bobie Smith in Tennessee, who helped a Veteran that had been struggling with alcohol and substance abuse find purpose again through our compensated work therapy program...
…like Lindsay Daly, a call center supervisor in Arizona who spoke at length with a Veteran-in-need, found out that he was teetering on the brink of homelessness, and got him housing assistance before it was too late.
…or like Herman Watkins, Michael Foster, and Brian Hudson from the Alabama National Cemetery, who saw a surviving spouse grieving at her husband’s gravesite, discovered that she was struggling with suicidal thoughts, got her the help she needed, and—as she describes it—saved her life that day.
I tell those stories because those public servants aren’t the exception at VA—they’re the rule. And the work they’ve done during the pandemic has not only helped us respond to COVID, but forged us into a stronger, better department for our nation’s Veterans.
We’ve seen more patients via direct and community care, processed more claims, and held more benefits hearings, than in any previous year in VA’s history.
We’ve massively ramped up tele-health and tele-appeals, allowing us to meet Vets where they want, when they want, in unprecedented ways.
Our outpatient trust scores among Vets rose to 90%, the highest level in years.
We’ve vaccinated more than 4 million people, and led the charge in federal government on employee vaccine requirements.
We’ve cared for non-Vets as a part of our 4th mission—deploying staff to hot spots and providing beds for hundreds of COVID patients in need.
And our cemeteries have not only stayed open during the pandemic, but expanded to six new locations.
All in all? The state of VA is that we are now providing more care, more services, and more benefits to more Veterans than ever before.
And we’re doing it by driving toward four fundamental principles that shape our vision for the future: Advocacy, Access, Outcomes, and Excellence.
First, advocacy. Advocating for Vets is a team effort—from the White House to VA to Congress to Veteran Service Organizations—and this year, that team effort has resulted in lifesaving legislation like the American Rescue Plan and the SAVE LIVES Act.
It’s also resulted in an FY22 budget that delivers for Veterans—and for which I ask Congress to appropriate funds as soon as possible to avoid a year-long continuing resolution that would directly harm our nation’s Vets.
And it’s resulted in real progress—and new presumptives—on environmental exposures... making President Biden the first President to proactively provide exposure benefits to the Vets who have fought our wars in the Middle East and South Asia for the past 30 years, and—more importantly—ensuring that thousands of those Vets are finally getting the benefits they’ve earned and deserve.
Second, access. We’re making sure that Veterans have access to the best care and services—at home, in the community, and at VA.
That means supporting caregivers.
It means finding the right balance between direct care and community care—because Veterans deserve a thriving, sustainable direct care system... one which ensures that future generations of Veterans will enjoy the same, great VA health care that past generations did.
It means reaching out to every Vet who deferred care during the pandemic—which we’re doing with VHA’s “Moving Forward Together” campaign—to let Vets know that we are here for them, and ready to offer timely, face-to-face, world-class care.
And it means deploying an electronic health records system that improves access and outcomes for Vets wherever they receive care. This remains a work in progress, but we’re now moving ahead along a clear path forward, based upon our strategic review, to make EHR a success for Vets and clinicians alike.
Third, outcomes. Outcomes drive everything we do—because Vets, not us, are the ultimate judges of our success.
Two of the most important outcomes are addressing Veteran suicide and Veteran homelessness—two phrases that simply should not exist in America.
On preventing Veteran suicide, we’ve held more tele-mental health sessions than ever before, massively ramped up our lethal means safety efforts, and reached out to every Veteran in our network to let them know that they are not alone—especially in the aftermath of Afghanistan.
And, on ending Veteran homelessness, we’re making significant progress in Los Angeles—where there are more homeless Vets than anywhere else in America—therefore building momentum toward housing every one of the more than 40,000 homeless Vets nationwide.
Addressing these issues is a top priority—because one Veteran who dies by suicide or is homeless is one too many.
Finally, excellence. We’re seeking excellence in all we do for Veterans by leveraging the diversity that defines the Veteran population and this country.
Because diversity is our strength—never a weakness.
There’s so much I could say here, but it all boils down to this: for too long, too many Veterans who fought to protect our rights and freedoms have had to fight brutal battles here at home for their own rights and freedoms.
But at VA, those fights are over.
In this administration, nobody is going to have to fight to get the quality care, benefits, and services they earned—no matter who they are or who they love.
So that’s the state of VA right now—delivering more care, more benefits, and more services to more Vets than ever before.
But the state of VA isn’t just about where we are now—it’s also about looking around the corner at where we’re going.
And let’s be honest: there are very real challenges ahead.
Looking ahead to this winter, we’re going to be releasing AIR commission recommendations—and I encourage all members of Congress to get briefings from our team now on the Market Assessments in their states, because we’re on the verge of some big decisions here, and you should understand the analytic basis for those decisions.
At the same time, we may be facing an increase in COVID —which is already brewing across the country with the Delta Variant even as we seek greatest clarity on Omicron.
But I promise you this: we will learn from everything we’ve done over the past 20 months to meet this moment.
We’re already doing that in places like Michigan, where we have more than 35 beds at the ready for Vets and non-Vets, and in places like Nebraska and Washington, where we’ve deployed staff to state Veteran homes to make sure they have the capacity and training they need to keep Vets safe through this coming surge.
The bottom line is that we will learn from last year to prepare for next year.
We will see Veterans through this surge and through all of these coming challenges.
And we will work with this Committee—and keep you informed—every step of the way as we do it.
Because Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors deserve our very best. And, with your continued help and partnership, we will never settle for anything less.
Thank you for the opportunity to appear today. I look forward to your questions.