Memorial Day is a sacred observance. It is a time to remember and honor those who died to protect our freedoms and preserve our way of life.
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and to the families and survivors they left behind. Repaying that debt is the solemn responsibility of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
At times, VA has not always performed to the standard that veterans deserve. I came to VA during a time of crisis. Veterans were not getting timely access to high-quality health care. We were failing those who needed us most. That is why we are implementing fundamental changes in the way we do business.
But we cannot do it alone. We are fortunate to have strong support from President Trump, Congress and organizations across the nation dedicated to serving America’s veterans and their families. One such organization — Rolling Thunder — is celebrating 30 years of advocacy this Memorial Day weekend.
More than 1 million riders and spectators are expected to participate in this year’s “Ride for Freedom” on the National Mall, and I am proud to be one of them. My family has a long tradition of military service and caring for those who served. My father was an Army psychiatrist, and both of my grandfathers were Army veterans, one who served as chief pharmacist at the VA hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Serving as Secretary of Veterans Affairs is my opportunity to give back to the men and women who secured the freedoms we all enjoy because of the sacrifices they made.
One of my first goals for VA was to improve access to care. Veterans shouldn’t have to wait months for medical appointments. The president recently signed legislation reauthorizing the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. This will ensure veterans receive the care they need, when they need it, whether it’s from VA or from a community provider. Already this year, we have authorized an estimated 6.1 million Community Care appointments, nearly 1.8 million more than the same time frame last year — a 42 percent increase.
We recently launched an online tool that allows veterans to view wait times and quality measures at their local VA facilities. No other health system in the country has this type of transparency.
We are making progress, but it will be short-lived if we don’t regain the trust of veterans and the American public. One of the ways we are earning trust is by taking swift action in cases of wrongdoing by our employees. We removed directors of our hospitals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Shreveport, Louisiana. We relieved the director in our Washington, D.C., medical center, and we removed other senior leaders due to misconduct or poor performance. We will not tolerate employees who act counter to our values or who put veterans at risk.
We are also rebuilding trust by helping those who need us the most. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and suicide prevention is one my top clinical priorities. An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. This is unacceptable. Just last month, one of my senior leadership team lost a member of his family, a veteran, to suicide. This is personal to me, my team, and to the families who are at risk of losing a loved one.
VA is taking steps to address this national crisis. Several months ago, the Veterans Crisis Line had a call rollover rate of more than 30 percent. Now, that rate is less than 1 percent. We launched a predictive modeling tool called REACH VET that analyzes existing data from veterans’ health records to identify those who might be at risk for suicide. We also extended mental health services to former servicemembers with Other Than Honorable discharges because we know this group is at greater risk for suicide.
Many organizations — including Rolling Thunder chapters — are joining our efforts by raising awareness of suicide prevention and encouraging veterans to seek help.
We have made progress, but there is still much more to be done. We are striving for VA to be a lifelong partner and trusted advocate for all veterans, their families, survivors and caregivers.
As we gather this Memorial Day weekend, I offer my sincere gratitude to the men and women who have sacrificed on our behalf and to the families of those who are no longer with us.
• Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin, M.D., was confirmed on Feb. 13, 2017 by a Senate vote of 100-0. He previously served as VA undersecretary for health and has held many distinguished academic and medical positions.
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