The Secretary of Veterans Affairs announced on Friday that President Trump would be the first president in United States history to attend the New York City Veterans Day parade on Monday. This will be the centennial of the annual commemorations on this date, starting as Armistice Day, then changing during World War II to Veterans Day in the US, and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth. New York City reportedly hosts the largest Veterans Day parade in the country.
It will be interesting to see if the left shows up to disrupt with their usual violent street theater. Do the mayor and governor have to show up and make nice? It would be nice to just look forward to great pictures and video of the parade participants and appreciative crowds focused on honoring our veterans.
And what about that press conference? The Q&A is informative, as the Secretary blows through the opening hostile questions and works on to substantive questions with great historical and organizational knowledge. Who knew that the Army started tracking suicide during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, concerned about our frontier army? Who knew that the suicide rates around World War I were highest among non-deployers?
Secretary Wilkie sure seems to be a first rate talent in an administration the establishment would have us believe are “a second-string, ragtag, unled army.” Finally, we have a president that will not settle for cabinet members who pass the Washington social sniff test. Finally, we have a president who takes his campaign promises deadly serious. Finally, we have a president who insisted on real reform and real choice for veterans. Finally, the VA bureaucracy may be dragged into living up to its Obama era 2013 “I CARE” core values.
Press Briefing by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie
November 8, 2019
SECRETARY WILKIE: Hello, everybody. Thank you all for coming. This is our week of weeks at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This is the week that we honor the 41 million Americans who have put on the uniform since the first shots were fired at Lexington Green in April of 1775.
Last night, the President held a ceremony with the National commanders of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and Rolling Thunder to permanently honor those POWs and MIAs who have been lost to the history books since our first war in the 1700s. He ordered the flying of the POW and MIA flag at all federal departments and agencies. And that was an important first step on this Veterans Day, 101 years after the end of the Great War. And the President will be following that up with his attendance at the New York City Veterans Day Parade, the first President to attend America’s largest parade, on Monday.
I am here to talk a little bit about the state of our VA.
It is — it is my honor to have been the Secretary, now for a year and three months. As General Mattis used to say, “I was born in khaki diapers.” So this is the world that I grew up in. And I want to say that this President was the first in the post-World War Two history to make veterans not only the centerpiece of his campaign, but also the centerpiece of his administration.
And he has made true to his commitments by authorizing us to present to the Congress the largest budget in the history of this department: $220 billion calling for 400,000 employees.
We have, in the last year, achieved the highest patient satisfaction rates in VA’s history, sitting somewhere at about 89.7 percent.
The annals of the American Medical Association and the annals of Internal Medicine have said, just in the last year, that VA’s healthcare is as good or better than any in the private sector. And our wait times are more than comparable with the private sector.
Under President Trump, our veterans are voting with their feet. This year of 2019, we have already had 3 million more appointments at VA than we did last year. The Veterans of Foreign Wars in their annual survey said that 9 out of 10 of their millions of members are completely satisfied with the way VA takes care of them. And those 9 out of 10 said that they are recommending to their comrades, who are not in VA, to join with us.
We’re also in the middle of the greatest transformational period in our history. We have launched the MISSION Act — the MISSION Act that finally integrates VA with the entire American healthcare system. But more importantly, fulfilling the President’s promise, this puts veterans at the center of their healthcare decisions, not the institutional prerogatives of VA, but veterans.
We finally give veterans the option of going into the private sector, if VA cannot provide them the healthcare that they need, or they live too far away from a VA Health Center that would not be conducive to their needs or their family’s needs.
The other thing that we have done: We have finally put our veterans on the same plane as their neighbors. America’s veterans now have access to urgent care. We are keeping them out of the emergency room with things like fever, the flu, or a sprained ankle.
The last few months since MISSION was kicked off on June 6th, we’ve had 70,000 urgent care visits. In addition to that, we’re seeing about 5,000 visits a week. We’ve certified 6,000 urgent care facilities across America; we want to get up to 7,500.
In addition to what we have done that is visible to the entire country, the President has asked us to engage in fundamental reforms that are less visible to the general public.
Next year, we will be launching the electronic health record. For the first time, anyone who enters the military through a military entrance processing station will have an electronic health record that will be accessible to VA once that young American leaves the service. For the first time, we will prevent people, like my father, after 30 years of military service, from carting around an 800-page paper record, and we will have an entire history of that veteran’s service stateside, in war, and overseas.
The other things that we have been doing: We have reformed our supply chain; we entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense to finally computerize and nationalize VA supply chain. So we will no longer have stories about doctors at DCVA running across the street to MedStar to get equipment that they should have had to begin with. In addition to that, we are reforming our HR system.
One of the things that I discovered when I began service on August 1st — I asked a fundamental military question to senior leaders in our department: How many people do we have on the rolls? I got two different answers. And I asked for a manning document. In the military, a manning document is a system of requirements, and the number of people you meet need to have those requirements met. We now have a manning document.
In addition to that: Accountability. In this President’s term, we have we have relieved over 8,000 employees of their duty at VA. The standard is, if you don’t live up to your oath, if you don’t live up to the standards that our veterans expect, that you will be asked to leave. This is a transformational moment in our history. We have relieved people as high as network directors to people at the other end of our employee chain. After the scandals of Phoenix, the scandals of 2014 and 2015, this is, I think, one of the strongest statements that we can make: that it is a new day at VA.
And, finally, two other things about transformation:
On the opioid front, we have not been immune to the crisis that has impacted the United States. But in the last year and a half, we have reduced the number of opioid prescriptions at VA by 51 percent. We have offered, for the first time, alternative therapies that, in my father’s day, would have been anathema to the ethos. We now tell soldiers: Come in and try acupuncture, tai chi, yoga, music therapy. We’re getting at the sources of the pain rather than treating the brain as we have with traditional opioid therapies.
And the last thing is suicide. A bit of a history lesson: The United States Army began taking statistics on suicide during the administration of Benjamin Harrison, who is only known for one thing: He was in-between two non-successive terms of Grover Cleveland. But Harrison, having been a general in the Civil War, recognized that there was a crisis in the frontier army. This is the first time that we have begun a national conversation about suicide prevention.
Fourteen — 60 percent — of those warriors who take their lives on a daily basis are not in VA. So we are calling for a national roadmap. I will have a report for you sometime in March, where we bring together Indian Health, HHS, HUD, DOD, and the rest of the federal government to actually begin a national conversation, long overdue, on mental health and addiction.
So I will conclude by saying that we have never had a President who has given this much attention and this much effort to those who have borne the battle. And it is my honor to be part of their team.