What the veteran community needs — a leader who puts accountability first
Throughout the pandemic, we’ve looked to our government leaders for clarity, vision, and results — necessities the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) consistently failed to provide. From the agency’s use of the drug Hydroxychloroquine to the supply of personal protective equipment for VA employees, the VA’s COVID response has been inadequate, proving detrimental to the health and well-being of our veterans.
The new administration has an opportunity to course correct. As a leading veterans advocacy organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) believes the next secretary of Veterans Affairs must bring to bear specific qualities if we are to effectively support our nation’s heroes.
The VA is a mammoth institution, second only to Department of Defense (DoD), with 370,000 employees serving the needs of more than nine million veterans. The agency operates the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the largest integrated health care network in the country, overseeing upwards of 1,255 health care facilities in addition to running the Veterans Benefits Administration (disability compensation, GI Bill, VA Home Loan, and more) and the National Cemetery Administration (responsible for 152 national cemeteries and 34 soldiers’ lots and monument sites in 42 states and Puerto Rico). To effectively lead, the VA secretary must understand the daily demands of the VA and the large-scale reforms it requires. While Denis McDonough does not have the military or medical background we would prefer, we are optimistic his experience with the complexities of Washington and close connection to the incoming administration position him to drive overdue changes and improvements within VA.
Dedication to Improving Health Care
Since millions of veterans look to the VA for health care, the VA requires a leader committed to prioritizing this issue for our community. If confirmed, McDonough must begin by reversing the VA’s current position on care for veterans with military toxic exposures, including burn pits, because no veteran should have to fight for treatment of problems resulting from their service. This is a personal issue for President-elect Biden and one that will require close coordination among the White House, Congress and VA leadership to resolve.
Combating the veteran suicide crisis must also be a top priority for the new leader. According to IAVA’s most recent annual survey, 62 percent of our members reported personally knowing a veteran who died by suicide, up 22 percent from 2014. If we are to avoid more tragedy, our next VA secretary requires an in-depth knowledge of existing veteran mental health resources and barriers to accessing care. The newly-enacted Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act is ambitious new legislation enabling veterans to access improved mental health services through the VA and in their communities. While a major legislative victory, the VA must enact it fully and quickly if the country is to successfully reduce the number of veterans dying by suicide each day.
In addition to these critical health care issues, the new VA secretary must commit to work with Congress and the veteran community to destigmatize the use of medicinal cannabis. Nearly 90 percent of our members support researching cannabis in treating wounds of war and we owe it to our nation’s veterans to deliver on this need.
Finally, implementation of the VA MISSION Act means veterans have greater access to private sector health care. But, if confirmed, McDonough must resist pressure to unnecessarily privatize additional functions of the VA. The private sector plays a critical role partnering with VA, but it cannot replace VA. Its care should be strengthened — not expanded into the private sector.
Commitment to Women Veterans
While the population of women veterans has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, their VA services and benefits often lag behind. The incoming VA leader must redouble efforts to support female veterans by eliminating gaps in care, strengthening the agency’s sexual harassment and assault reporting procedures and holding employees accountable to the zero-tolerance policy. The IAVA-led Deborah Sampson Act highlights the numerous issues afflicting our women veterans, which includes the lack of inclusivity within the VA. For nearly four years, IAVA has led the fight to make this ambitious legislation benefiting women veterans a reality and the new secretary must share in this fight and implement its aggressive provisions. Additionally, IAVA expects the new secretary to embrace a gender-neutral VA motto — a change that unanimously passed the House earlier this year — a new leader can take a huge step in fostering inclusivity and embedding the recognition of female veterans within the institution.
The challenges facing our generation of veterans are distinct and complex, which is why IAVA has long wanted to see a post-9/11 veteran leading the VA. The selection of Denis McDonough does not meet that goal but I am optimistic that it does signal a commitment by the incoming administration to prioritizing veterans and the VA reforms needed to support them. His selection concerns many veterans, so I encourage him to spare no effort in getting to know our community, our service and sacrifices.
Getting to know the VA will include a steep learning curve, but McDonough’s nomination reflects President-elect Biden’s complete trust and confidence in him. We know that veterans will be a priority to this administration and we view the next four years as an opportunity to bring about real and needed change.
We are hopeful that all members of the Biden administration will be allies to our veterans, but the proof will be in their actions. IAVA and the nation looks to President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris, as well as Secretary-nominee Denis McDonough, to support those who have fought our wars by prioritizing transparency, addressing the critical issues facing our veterans, putting people over process, and serving those who have served the country.
Jeremy Butler is the Chief Executive Officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.