State of the VA: McDonough Offers Outlook on Improvements, Challenges

State of the VA: McDonough Offers Outlook on Improvements, Challenges
VA Secretary Denis McDonough addresses MOAA members during the 2021 annual meeting in Arlington, Va. (Sean Shanahan/for MOAA)

Nine months after being sworn in as VA secretary, Denis McDonough kicked off National Veteran and Military Families Month by sharing his perspective on how the VA is doing its job in delivering services and benefits to our nation’s veterans at a Nov. 9 press conference.


While positive advances in delivering medical care and benefits have been plentiful during the pandemic, age-old issues of access to quality health care and high rates of suicide and homelessness still plague veterans and the VA. McDonough has made access to health care, mental health services, delivery of benefits, and preventing suicide and homelessness top priorities.


These challenges have not deterred the secretary, who remains determined to keep his promise to “fight like hell” for veterans. Acknowledging the passing of Max Cleland – an American Vietnam war hero, former head of the Veterans Administration (1977-1981, before the role became a Cabinet-level position), and senator from Georgia – McDonough paid tribute to Cleland’s contributions by recognizing him as the father of the modern VA.


[RELATED: VA Secretary Outlines Priorities, Initiatives at MOAA’s Annual Meeting]


“It’s hard to overstate how much he [Cleland] modernized the VA for his fellow Vietnam veterans,” said McDonough. “He uniquely recognized we work for veterans and instilled that ethos in everything we do — it’s that same ethos that informs the administration, me, and my staff today.”


Managing a Crisis

McDonough took the reins at VA during one of the most challenging and unprecedented times in history, when the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc across our nation and the world.


“The pandemic has been devasting for all of us,” the secretary said. “The VA’s incredible employees have stepped forward to continue serving veterans in this time. They used 3D printers to make personal protective equipment when faced with shortages, worked long hours, and greatly ramped up the use of telehealth … and the VA opened hospital beds to nonveterans in communities where hospital capacity was limited.”


Managing the national crisis and caring for veterans has made the VA a different institution than it was 20 months ago, before the emergency declaration. The growth and lessons learned during this period will prevent VA from going back to the way things were before the pandemic, McDonough told reporters.


The advancement of telehealth services; establishment of rapid hiring practices; expansion of virtual disability claims, exams, and appeals process capabilities; rollout of new community care networks and standards of practice; continuation of burial services; and so much more helped to provide new and innovative ways for how the department can care for and serve veterans during and after the pandemic.


[RELATED: VA Leadership Hasn’t Done Enough to Protect Patients, Watchdog Says]


Through White House initiatives like Joining Forces and the establishment of a special VA advisory committee, the administration aims to advocate and support veterans and military families, caregivers, and survivors in every way possible – before, during, and after service.


The pandemic also forced the VA and the nation to take a harder look at not just the physical aspects of health, but also the emotional, psychological, and economic impacts the pandemic has had on our country and our lives.


Expanding mental health services – including tele-mental health and outreach efforts to encourage veterans to seek help through the Veterans Crisis Line, Vet Centers, or through VA medical facilities – continues to be an essential element of reducing suicide during the pandemic. The VA also massively ramped up its lethal-means safety program, giving out more than 9,500 gun locks this year to put more time between the veteran and acting on the thought of suicide.


Old Problems Persist

Still, the VA struggles to provide benefits to veterans, especially those exposed to toxins while serving in uniform. Even with a new comprehensive decision model for determining presumptive conditions in place, the VA still has more than 260,000 claims in its benefits backlog – claims languishing for more than 125 days.


Then there is the long-anticipated VA electronic health record. The department was forced to take a strategic pause to evaluate problems during the launch of the new system at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane, Wash., earlier this year. Patient safety, deployment of a new scheduling tool, employee training, and governance issues were major discrepancies highlighted by both the VA Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office.


[RELATED: What’s Next for VA’s Troubled Electronic Health Records Program?]


MOAA commends the administration and the secretary for their accomplishments and arduous work in improving health care and benefit services during the difficult months of the pandemic. The secretary and his team clearly are prepared to tackle the challenges ahead.


MOAA and our veteran and uniformed service organization colleagues are also prepared to partner with the VA, the administration, and Congress to advocate on behalf of veterans, their families, caregivers, and survivors in every way possible to ensure they receive timely benefits and quality health care services.


What is a positive change you have seen in your VA care so far this year? Or what other area would you like the secretary to focus on in the coming months? Email to share your thoughts with MOAA and the VA secretary.


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About the Author

Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret)
Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret)

Campos currently serves as MOAA's Senior Director of Government Relations, managing matters related to military and veterans’ health care, wounded, ill and injured, and caregiver policy.