Op Ed

Ready to Work with Secretary Shulkin on Improving the VA

February 13, 2017

Swords to Plowshares is proud to support the confirmation of Dr. David Shulkin as the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA provides essential, comprehensive, and integrated services that must be preserved for current and future generations of veterans, and our next VA Secretary has an obligation to uphold the promises we have made to those who have served.

Swords to Plowshares has been delivering community based veteran services for over 40 years and has seen the vital impact that VA health care and benefits have had on tens of thousands of just our veteran clients. Whether it be access to physical and mental health care, VA pension and disability income, or transitional or permanent housing, these services literally save veteran lives every day.

There have been ups and downs in VA services over the years, but the quality of care is as good as or better than private sources and in recent years we see significant improvements. The delivery of comprehensive veteran-centric mental and physical health care for both aging and recently separated veterans is unique and unrivaled. The VA also delivers behavioral health and homeless services which set it apart from any other health care system and we credit nearly halving the number of homeless veterans to proactive services and prevention efforts including permanent supportive housing and Supportive Services for Veterans and Families initiatives.  On the benefits side, presumption of service connection for specific classes of veterans for PTSD, Agent Orange related illness and other issues is a lifeline for veterans struggling with serious health co-morbidities.

We also see that these advances are stifled by complex bureaucratic obstacles, capacity issues, and the VBA’s history of backlogs alternating between the initial claims process and appeals. But diluting VA care is not the answer. There still remain a group of funders and ideologues waging battle to dismantle the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) care by outsourcing the delivery of its healthcare services to the private sector. They argue that the VA is riddled with scandal, that veterans want to expand ‘Choice’ and that the private sector can provide better care, but the truth is that most veterans prefer VA care and want their system, which was designed to serve their needs, to be reinforced and strengthened rather than outsourced to non-veteran providers.

Our Executive Director Michael Blecker currently co-chairs the newly instated MyVA Community Board here in the Bay Area. We plan to continue to work with our local VA facilities to strengthen relationships with veteran and non-veteran specific community providers and monitor the impact of any national policy and its impact on our clients, veterans.

We look forward to working with Dr. Shulkin to continue improvements at the VA. In order for the VA to continue its path of transformation, incoming leadership should focus on continuing important models to resolve veteran homelessness; improving the VHA’s operations, support, and management functions; and working to ensure that the Choice Program does not take the place of veteran-centric care but instead reinforces it when needed. We must strengthen the current health delivery model and protect the VA system of care preferred by veterans to effectively address their needs.