When Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert “Bob” McDonald held a Town Hall meeting at the National Guard Armory in Lewisburg September 25, he fielded several questions from the veterans in attendance.
McDonald, who insists everyone call him “Bob,” said he welcomes questions and provides his personal contact information so veterans can contact him directly.
“I was confirmed at the end of July, and at my first national press conference September 1, I gave out my cell phone number – my personal cell phone number – the one I carry with me,” he said. “I did that on purpose because I wanted to communicate to every employee of the VA that we’ve got to make ourselves accessible to our customers. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I want to hear from you if you have issues. If you find there is a VA employee who’s not accessible, I want to know about it because that’s not the culture we want.”
One veteran asked McDonald about the prescription policy of the VA. He said he has had issues with his doctor prescribing a lower level drug and gradual changing him to a different drug which will work better.
McDonald explained that each patient is different, especially concerning prescriptions because each body reacts differently to the medication.
“Oftentimes in the medical profession, you’re not exactly sure what drugs work with each person,” he said. “In Post Traumatic Stress, if you’re a psychiatrist, it’s very difficult to figure out which medication actually works for the person because everybody reacts differently to medication. Part of that is your genome, the way your body’s designed.”
In order to understand the bodies of each veteran in the country, the VA is conducting a project in which they are collecting blood samples of veterans for genome sequencing.
“We’re doing what the President likes to call precision medicine,” McDonald said. “We’ll use the genome sequence to figure out the prescriptions we need to provide, based on your body and the way your body reacts. Right now we have 450,000 blood samples from veterans. I’m hoping we’ll get to the point where we can prescribe the correct dosage and the correct medicine the first time.”
In McDonald’s presentation, he explained that all the 1-800 numbers and websites for VAs around the country will be consolidated into one number and one website, making it easier for veterans to access information and contact the VA.
“We’re expecting to have everything up and running by the end of the calendar year,” he said. “There will be some Beta involved, in other words, it won’t be fully functioning. By Veterans Day, you’ll be able to get on the website – it’s going to be vets.gov – so if you go to vets.gov, you’ll start seeing the creation of the new website.”
McDonald went to the mecca for all computer-savvy individuals and hired three people from Silicon Valley in California, to ensure the website runs smoothly.
“What we’re trying to do is get some of the people who do this work very well and very fast, to work for the government,” he said. “These people have already made a lot of money so we say to them, ‘we’re going to promise you get to live in Washington, D.C. We’re not going to pay much money. you’re going to be a government employee, but you can serve your country.’ We call it the Digital Design Team.”
Another veteran said he heard rumors that once the temporary VA clinic opens in Lewisburg, it will only have one physician instead of the usual two. He asked McDonald if that was true and why it would happen when the area had been previously served by two doctors.
McDonald said it is a numbers game – the number of people who use the VA constitutes the need for more doctors.
“Right now the average veteran is using the VA for only thirty-four percent of their healthcare,” he said. “They get hearing aids from us because hearing aids are free. They get drugs from us because we have one of the best prescription pharmacies in the world. They get eyeglasses from us. If you get a knee replaced on Medicare, you have to pay twenty percent of twenty-five thousand dollars. If you get a knee replaced at the VA, it’s free or you pay nineteen dollars.
“The point is let’s get more veterans in so we can get those census numbers up and we hire more doctors,” he continued. I’m hiring doctors. We just need to get those numbers up.”
A concerned veteran asked what the protocol is for dealing with an employee who is not doing his/her job properly. He said when he was in the Air Force, if the job wasn’t done right, you were fired.
McDonald agreed with that sentiment and said the VA has made changes to ensure the employees are doing what they are supposed to for the veterans.
“Since I’ve become secretary, we’ve terminated over two thousand employees in the VA,” he said. “Thirteen of my top eighteen directors are all new. Nineteen percent of our medical centers have new leaders or new leadership teams. If you don’t think accountability matters in the VA, talk to a guy named Cathedral Henderson. He’s from Augusta, Georgia. The FBI investigated and he’s been indicted. The allegation is he was manipulating consult records – fifty counts. Each count brings with it a two-hundred, fifty thousand dollar fine and five years in jail.
“Accountability does matter and we do take steps to make sure the employees perform properly,” McDonald added.
A female veteran said she has a difficult time getting treatment at the VA because it does not provide care specific to women, including mammograms.
McDonald agreed that the care of female veterans has fallen to the wayside, but he is working to establish new clinics specific to female care.
“One of the biggest issues we need to do is to transform our system for female veterans,” he said. “Today about eleven percent of veterans are female. In 2040, it will be twenty percent or even higher. Despite that, over sixty percent of our buildings are over fifty years old. We have some buildings that only have single gender restrooms. What we’re trying to do around the country is build women’s clinics with different entrances than the men and different exits than the men.”
McDonald and his staff, as well as staff from the offices of Senators Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore Capito and Congressman Evan Jenkins were available to assist veterans who had more questions after the meeting.