Veterans Affairs Fulfilling Commitment, Secretary Says
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 28, 2006 The Department of Veterans Affairs remains "vibrant, dynamic, flexible, and ... forward-looking" as it pursues "the best care for America's defenders," the department's secretary said.
"(VA) is strong and it's moving forward," Jim Nicholson said at the National Press Club yesterday in delivering the state of VA. "It is fulfilling President Bush's commitment to honor our veterans."
The department is also carrying out President Lincoln's 1865 promise to U.S. veterans, "to care for him who has borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan," Nicholson said.
The VA, following a decade-long health care transformation, is at the forefront of America's health industry, he said, citing nods from the Journal of the American Medical Association, among others.
The American Customer Satisfaction Index also reported for the sixth consecutive year that veterans are highly satisfied with their health care, Nicholson said. "VA outscored the private sector by a full 10 percentage points," he added.
As part of the department's transformation, VA's budget has increased since President Bush took office, Nicholson said. The president's fiscal 2007 budget includes a request of $80.6 billion for VA. "For medical care alone, the president is asking for $34.3 billion," he said.
That figure represents an increase of 69 percent over the funding dedicated to health care when the president took office, Nicholson said.
With 7.7 million veterans enrolled in the VA system, many of them needing highly specialized services, the budget is the "VA's springboard" to fulfilling its promise to care for the nation's veterans, he said. It also provides the resources to ensure a seamless transition from military status to civilian life, and stresses the importance of an informed hassle-free changeover for all veterans, especially those who are injured, he said.
VA's partnership with the Defense Department also remains a priority, Nicholson said. These efforts recently earned recognition for the departments' collaboration on electronic medical records for patients receiving care from both DoD and VA, he said.
"The ramping up of our military forces, and the subsequent deployments to Southwest Asia, have brought new cooperative challenges," Nicholson said. "Of great concern is how our two departments can work together to meet the rehabilitation needs of troops (injured by improvised explosive devices)."
These concerns are being addressed, in part, at the rehabilitation, research and development centers of Excellence, Nicholson said. Here, innovative solutions to the challenges of traumatic and multiple injuries are being developed.
"The VA's four polytrauma rehabilitation centers respond to those injuries with a dramatically new level of rehabilitative care," he said. "The provide both inpatient and outpatients services supported by (multidisciplinary) teams."
VA also places high priority on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, Nicholson said. The department is continuing to study long-term effects of combat and is recognized as a world leader in treatment of the disorder, he added.
Another focus for the department is the timely and accurate delivery of benefits. The volume of claims receipts has grown substantially, he said. Last year, 3.5 million people received VA disability compensation and pensions worth more than $30 billion.
The number of claims requires more time and resources to process, he said. VA is targeting ways to improve productivity, ranging from simplifying and clarifying VA regulations to leveraging the potential of technology, he said.
Lack of space to bury America's veterans presents VA with yet another challenge. In 2007, "Taps" will sound for more than 107,000 veterans, a sharp increase from just two years ago, Nicholson said.
In response to this growing need, VA is conducting one of the most ambitious expansions of national cemeteries since the Civil War, Nicholson said.
"Three new cemeteries will soon be added to our 122 existing cemeteries, and six more are in the planning stages," he said. "By 2009, we'll have nearly doubled our capacity."
Looking to the medical future, VA is laying groundwork designed to help all veterans lead healthier lives, Nicholson said.
"Healthier U.S. Veterans was designed to (arm) millions of diabetic, obese and at-risk veterans with common-sense measures so that they may make healthy and life-saving decisions," he said. Diabetes and obesity, prevalent among veterans, are preventable or manageable, he added.
VA also has recently created the Genomic Medicine Program Advisory Committee. It will help establish policies for using genetic information to advance knowledge of the relationship of the genome to a host of physical and mental conditions, he said.
"What if ... we could move from providing medicine that is preventive to medicine that is predictive?" he asked.
Genomic medicine is new and carries ethics and privacy concerns, Nicholson said.
"But we know from past experience that once we determine that a VA program is in the best interest of our veterans, we move forward with all the resources we can muster," he said. "And when VA health care is on the move, we change the nation's health care landscape for the better."