"We'll Make a Difference," VA Chief Promises
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 14, 2001 Calling himself a veteran's activist, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony J. Principi vowed to conduct a major top-to-bottom review of his department's health care and claims processing systems and its use of information technology.
Principi promises to make a difference.
"If we don't improve benefits and services after four years, I'll consider my tour a failure," he said, in a recent interview with the American Forces Information Service. The new secretary is a Vietnam combat veteran. His wife was a Navy nurse in Vietnam.
He said the VA's entire system is being examined to ensure the needs of active duty service members are being met when they become veterans and file for benefits. For instance, he said, smarter use of modern technology is critical to VA.
"We spend about $1.5 billion a year on information technology, but the outcomes are not anywhere near commensurate with the investment we make," Principi noted. "We need to be smarter about how we procure technology and how we use it."
He said taking up to two years to reach a decision and abstract theories of veterans benefits and healthcare are not acceptable. "I want practical, hands-on solutions as to what we need to do better to provide high-quality, timely evaluations on claims," he emphasized. "I want to ensure we have uniform access to high-quality healthcare."
The Department of Veterans Affairs operates 172 medical centers, 134 nursing homes and more than 800 community and outpatient clinics that treated more than 620,000 inpatients last year and provided for 36.4 million outpatient visits.
Principi said he's looking forward to feedback from a national telephone survey of veterans concerning VA services. The project started in February and will run through August. He said the results, expected in 2002, will help the government plan future programs and services.
VA officials expect the survey to help them follow trends in the veterans population; compare veterans who use VA services and those who do not; study the delivery of VA benefits; and analyze VA policies.
The survey contractor, Westat Inc., is asking veterans about health, disabilities, military background, education and the need for services, such as medical care, housing and education assistance. The interviewers will sample 20,000 veterans.
Principi said he's driven by his time last year as chairman of the Congressional Commission on Service Members and Veterans Transition Assistance. One of that group's major concerns, for instance, was the experiences of service members who filed for disability compensation before separating, he noted.
One of the commission's conclusions, he added, was that programs of the Department of Labor's Veterans Employment and Training Service aren't working and need overhauls.
"We talked to thousands of active duty service members all over the world to learn what their needs were," he said. He gave an example:
"Recently separated veterans, who by definition are mature, disciplined, drug-free, teamwork-oriented individuals, should have a higher employment rate than nonveterans the same age," he said. Yet his commission found that, despite their qualifications, nearly 20 percent of veterans ages 20 to 24 were unemployed -- a higher rate than nonveteran peers.
Consequently, Principi said, VA needs to continue seeking comments, feedback and recommendations of people on active duty and veterans as to their needs and how VA can better provide them. He vowed to work hard, to listen to veterans' concerns and to make decisions that will help.
"There has to be a close bond and trust between the people who defend the nation and who may come to us for their benefits after separating from the services," he said. "They need to know we're providing them with the care and benefits they've earned in service to our country."
Principi characterized military and veterans benefits as a life cycle. "We'll provide benefits and services to mitigate the hardships of active duty, or rehabilitation," he said. "We'll give them the educational tools and the keys to the door to success in life in this modern information age.
"We'll make a difference," he promised. "We'll strengthen the bond and trust that absolutely must exist between the people who serve the nation and the 219,000 dedicated people in Veterans Affairs who provide services to them."