by Morgan Montalvo
Recently confirmed U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie was in San Antonio on Monday to visit with agency employees and patients, and thank them for being part of an organizational transformation-in-progress, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
Wilkie was confirmed as VA head in July, and has made customer service a top-tier priority for the department, which has been the focus of repeated investigations related to mismanagement and inadequate patient care.
“I think a lot of the turmoil of the past year is behind us,“Wilkie tells News Radio 1200 WOAI' Morgan Montalvo in an exclusive interview. “I’m very excited about the support from the Congress and from the President.”
Monday’s visit is part of Wilkie’s effort to transform the VA into a model for responsive, client-oriented service at all levels.
He credits the return to a “hands-on” approach to serving veterans and upgrades in information technology with reducing by more than 70 percent the time required to address many claims, resolving appeals more rapidly, and introducing conveniences similar to those offered by large, for-profit civilian hospitals.
Wilkie says examples of improved agency performance include a reduction over the past year from 64,000 to about 3,500 the number of requests for prostheses taking more than 30 days to process, and a more than five-fold increase in payments to non-VA facilities and health care professionals who treat veterans.
“When it comes to paying providers outside of VA, we’ve gone from 140,000 claims a month that we pay to about 750,000." Wilkie says.
On Wednesday, Wilkie heads to Capitol Hill for testimony before a Senate committee related to his first 60 days in office, and an update on the recently passed VA Mission Act, which he says will significantly benefit veterans in large states such as Texas and Alaska, where distances between VA facilities can be hundreds of miles.
Veterans in some parts of West Texas are assigned to clinics or hospitals in New Mexico. “One of the things ‘Mission’ will do - it will, because of those distances, allow those veterans to ‘opt in’ to choosing a health care provider closer to their homes, closer to their families. if the burden of travel is too great,” he says.
The Mission Act, voted into law earlier this year, allows veterans who live more than 30 miles from a VA facility to obtain outside care from a non-VA provider.
Lawmakers have funded the act though the end of this fiscal year, and Wilkie will urge senators to renew its appropriations.
A provision in the law also allows Wilkie to adjust the distance considered burdensome for veterans who need treatment, but live in rural or under-served areas. Preventing veteran suicides also has become a top-tier VA priority.
Wilkie says his agency is working with the military to identify personnel who exhibit the warning signs of someone contemplating suicide, and connecting them with mental health professionals before they return to civilian life.
“The other thing that we’re doing is partnering with the states to ‘capture’ those folks who are not in our system,” Wilkie says. “The sad thing is that every day 22 veterans commit suicide; 14 of those veterans are outside VA.”
He says nearly 50 years since the end of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia, Vietnam veterans still take their own lives in large numbers.
While in town Wilkie met with local VA senior management.
Robert Walton, director of the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, describes his new boss as candid, eager to discuss agency challenges at all levels, and focused on service delivery.
Wilkie says veterans and their families will continue to see “a new day” at the VA, which now offers same-day intake for veterans in need of urgent care or mental health treatment.
VA facilities nationwide now post wait times online in a manner similar to civilian emergency rooms. In addition to speaking with area veterans, the secretary met with local nursing students.
“The statistic that I heard that is so refreshing and wonderful, is that 89 percent of the nursing students who come as residents and learn their profession here stay with VA, and that’s exactly the kind of support we need for those who’ve carried the burden,” says Wilkie.
PHOTO" U.S. OFFICE OF VETERANS AFFAIRS