Looking for suggestions on how to improve service and shorten wait times throughout the VA system, the new Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs visited Florida this week to hear directly from veterans, VA employees, veteran service organizations and VA administrators.
Secretary Robert McDonald- who likes to be called Bob - said progress is being made on speeding up medical appointments and decreasing the wait for benefit claims. As an example, McDonald said the national backlog of disability claims has been reduced 57 percent from its peak in March 2013.
But McDonald said more veterans are filing claims and then added that the true impact of war will not be felt at Veterans Affairs for another 40 years.
“[T]he war in Afghanistan and Iraq, if you count 2014 as it ending, we’re going to be busy taking care of veterans,” McDonald said. “The peak of that won’t be until 2054. So, we still have a long ways to go to build the capability that we need.”
McDonald toured VA facilities in Sarasota, St. Petersburg and Tampa with Florida U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller (FL-R), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
“It’s so critical to have a hands-on secretary,” Miller said. “We are looking forward (to) a secretary who is actually ready to get in the trenches and talk with the individuals who are on the front line and not stay ensconced in the offices in Washington D.C.”
Miller’s committee held numerous hearings scrutinizing administrators and policies at the VA, after reports surfaced about VA employees manipulating data to gain favorable evaluations and retaliation being taken against whistleblowers.
McDonald stressed his openness and that he wants to hear if there are problems so they can be fixed.
He said the VA needs to do a better job of forecasting future needs, but they’ve gotten better at scheduling appointments.
“The way we’re doing a better job of scheduling is what I would call brute force. Lengthening clinic hours, using mobile clinics,” McDonald said.
The new secretary met with several members of the congressional delegation from the bay area before heading to Orlando where he toured the VA facilities on Thursday.