- - Tuesday, June 29, 2021

At the height of the pandemic, Marine Corps Veteran Michael Novielli developed fatigue, aches, and a fever. He’d never “felt this sick [in his] whole life,” and his diagnosis was exactly what he feared.

Like millions of others over the past year, Michael had contracted COVID-19.

After four days at Northport VA Medical Center, Michael was doing well enough to be discharged — but we at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) placed him on our telehealth program to monitor his symptoms. That decision likely saved Michael’s life.

He shared his temperature, oxygen levels, and heart rate every day for two weeks via telehealth. Then his VA nurse, Marjorie Rogers, noticed something unusual in his heart rate. She called and told him to visit the emergency room immediately, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted for another two weeks.

“Marjorie saved my life,” he said. “If I wasn’t on telehealth, I would have stayed home with pneumonia.” There’s no telling what would have happened then.

Michael’s story is just one example of the many lives that caregivers at VA have saved throughout the pandemic. They have stepped up time and again throughout this trying year, risking their lives and leaving their families to serve the brave men and women who served our country.

And now, as we continue to fight COVID, we are working to learn from successes of the last 18 months to make sure that we don’t just go back to pre-pandemic operations moving forward, but instead create a VA that takes better care of our Vets than ever before.

One of the ways we can do that is by learning from the success of our telehealth program. During the first and worst days of the pandemic, VA proved it could still safely deliver care to Veterans, providing primary care, specialty care, and mental health care appointments at previously unthinkable levels.

The number of telehealth appointments peaked above 47,000 in a single day, which is more than were provided during an entire month before the pandemic. This was only possible because VA had a strong foundation in place, allowing for exponential growth and cutting-edge innovation in its virtual care delivery.

Another important component of our pandemic response has been innovation. VA has long been at the forefront of health care innovation in America, with VA doctors performing the first successful liver transplant, inventing the first cardiac pacemaker, and developing the first Nicotine patch — and that legacy continued during the pandemic.

When personal protective equipment stock was dwindling across America — putting the lives of doctors, nurses, and caregivers at risk — VA invented a new type of reusable PPE and mobilized 3D printers to create it.

When Veterans could no longer attend hearings with the Board of Veterans Appeals, we created virtual tele-hearings, ensuring that Veterans would be able to receive appellate decisions on benefits and services.

And when claims ballooned at the beginning of the pandemic, and VA waited on 80,000 files from the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC), VA benefits experts brainstormed a fix that decreased wait times for Veterans by nearly 40% and cut the previously skyrocketing backlog by 90%.

VA has also proven that we can lead on the most important effort for Veterans and all Americans right now: getting shots into arms. We have vaccinated more than 3.4 million Veterans and employees because our medical center staff have worked tirelessly to turn entire hallways, exam rooms, classrooms and auditoriums into makeshift, rapid vaccination clinics. VA also set up special walk-in clinics and special weekend vaccinations at a time when many had trouble finding a location to get vaccinated.

These efforts were supercharged by the SAVE LIVES Act, which provided VA with the authority to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all Veterans, regardless of enrollment status, plus Veteran spouses, caregivers, and some children between the ages of 12 and 17.

Those successes, along with the sacrifice of our caregivers, has led to unprecedented trust in VA among Veterans. As of today, nearly 80% of Veterans trust VA to deliver the world-class health care and benefits they’ve earned — a 24% leap from 2016.

That’s the sign of a job well done but we won’t pat ourselves on the back because much more work is on the horizon. We owe this level of dedication and attention to our Vets, their families, caregivers, and survivors. We will continue to “fight like hell” for each one of them as they have done for each one of us.

• The Honorable Denis Richard McDonough was nominated by President Biden to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), confirmed by the Senate, and sworn in the following day as the 11th Secretary of VA. He served previously in the Obama Administration as White House Chief of Staff and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor where helped lead the Obama-Biden Administration’s work on behalf of military families and Veterans.

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