The National Guard Armory in Lewisburg was filled with veterans of all branches of service Friday as they gathered for a Town Hall meeting led by Senators Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito, Congressman Evan Jenkins and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald.
The meeting gave veterans and officials an opportunity to discuss the future of the VA provided clinic in Greenbrier County. At this time, the closest VA clinic for Greenbrier and Pocahontas counties is in Beckley.
Director of the Beckley VA Medical Center Karin McGraw shared news that, with the help of government funding and the Office of Emergency Services, the VA has acquired a temporary site for a clinic in Lewisburg.
“We know that it is going to be about six-to-twelve months before we can establish a permanent clinic in Greenbrier County, but with the support of the central office, the Secretary and the Under Secretary, the Emergency Management Services is assisting us in acquiring a modular building which we will situate in a location in Lewisburg so that we can provide an interim temporary clinic so you can all receive care,” she said. “We’re shooting for opening the beginning of December.”
Secretary McDonald spoke about the improvements his office is making the VA services nationwide. Since taking office, McDonald has worked diligently to improve services and increase the number of doctors, nurses and clinics to ensure better services for veterans.
“The issue that caused the problem in the VA in 2014 was the aging veteran population,” he said. “In 1975 when I graduated from West Point, there were two million veterans over the age of sixty-five. In 2017, they’ll be ten million veterans over the age of sixty-five. That’s a five times increase.”
The VA focuses on three things – research, education and the veterans. The VA not only provides services for veterans. Many of the medical advancements in America were made by the doctors at the VA.
“Veterans cannot do without the VA and the American people cannot do without the VA,” McDonald said. “The VA does one point eight million dollars of research a year. That research is in spinal cord injuries, it’s in post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, and prosthetics. VA has three Nobel prizes. VA invented the shingles vaccine. VA did the first liver transplant. VA did the first implantable pacemaker. It was a VA nurse who came up with the idea using barcodes to connect patients with medicine. The research that the VA does helps every single American, not just veterans.”
The VA trains the majority of America’s doctors and is one of the largest employers of nurses in the country.
“The VA trains seventy percent of the doctors in this country,” McDonald said. “If we do away with the VA, who’s going to train the doctors? The VA is the largest employer of nurses in this country and the largest screener for nurses.”
The last and most important aspect is the veterans.
“Every doctor and every nurse – every one of us – in the VA loves caring for veterans,” McDonald said. “We love the stories. We love the friendships. We love the fellowship. We love the camaraderie. Those three reasons, these three legs of a stool – training, clinical work, research – are all critical, not only to the heathcare for veterans, but to the healthcare of the American public. That’s why we need a VA.”
McDonald has been traveling around the country to discuss the importance of VA facilities and collecting information on how to best provide services to veterans, especially those in rural areas.
Since becoming the secretary, McDonald and his office have hired more than 1,100 doctors and 2,200 more nurses. As for facilities, the VA has opened more than 1.4 million square feet of space that has been leased under emergency leases and 400,000 square feet of new space that it owns.
Along with adding staff and square footage, the VA is focused on addressing claims and providing all they can for every veteran in need.
“The back log is when we have a claim longer than one hundred twenty-five days,” McDonald said. “We’ve taken that from 611,000 in March 2013 to about 80,000 as we sit here today. We will be to zero before the end of the year. We’ve done that by digitizing the process. Last but not least, we reduced veteran homelessness by thirty-three percent. We’ve got more to do. We won’t finish until every single veteran has a roof over their head. We’re making good progress thanks to the members of congress who are providing the funds to help us do that.”
The VA is implementing new strategies to continue moving in the right direction with providing services.
“There are two elements to set the right course for long term,” McDonald said. “One is called the Blueprint for Excellence. It’s the future of our healthcare system. We brought in a new under secretary of health. It’s the first under secretary of health I can remember that’s already run a medical system and is coming to the VA system versus the other way around. The Blueprint of Excellence has ten strategies of how we will get to pre-eminence in every area of our healthcare system.”
The second element is rebranding the VA to My VA.
“We want you to think of the VA as yours,” McDonald said. “Think of your favorite brands – I used to be in the branding business – we want you to have an intimate relationship with the VA. We want you to know who to call, where to go. We’re going to go from over one hundred websites to one. We’re going to go from over one thousand 1-800 numbers to one. We want you to feel like the VA is your customized cell phone. We want you all to have your own individual medical plans. We want you to have your own health plans so you stay fit and don’t even get sick. We’re working hard on that.”
As he trains new employees, McDonald will utilize five strategies – improve the veteran experience, improving employee experience, improve internal support services, create a culture of continuous improvement and create strategic partnerships.
Senators Manchin and Capito, and Congressman Jenkins thanked those in attendance for their input and said they would continue the fight to support the veterans of West Virginia.
Thank you from all of us,” Manchin said. “Because of you, we stand here today in freedom in this country. It wasn’t free. You were willing to defend me, to protect me and to die for me, and for that I’m very grateful. Thank you again.”
McDonald opened the floor to questions and provided answers. Information from the Q&A session will be published in next week’s edition of The Pocahontas Times.