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on several fl awed premises and, if enacted, would have immediate and permanent negative consequences for millions of veterans who choose and rely on VA health care,” the vet- erans’ organizations wrote. In its fi nal report to Congress, the Commission on Care (created under the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act) also rejected the concept of privatization. Although the commission’s recommendations were not unanimous, support for a reformed VA with improved care in the community was recommended.


A veteran-centric approach Since the access crisis in Phoenix, the VA has handled millions more ap- pointments annually, both within its facilities and out in the community. And, as Dr. David Shulkin, VA under- secretary of health, told the advisory committee in Boston, 97 percent of those appointments now are com- pleted within 30 days of the veteran’s preferred date. Thirty-four medical centers, he said, now off er access to same-day primary care, and, as of April, 90 percent of mental health patients are seen within seven days. Only 14 percent of community psy- chiatrists can match that, he noted. The VA also is fi nding innovative


ways to serve veterans, from a new prosthetic arm developed in conjunction with the De-


fense Advanced Research Projects Agency and adaptive sports programs to telehealth services that deliver much-needed mental health services. “This isn’t happening in the pri-


vate sector because it’s not cost-ef- fective,” Shulkin said. “We are by far the largest user of telehealth in the country. No one else comes close.” The VA is changing the way it communicates with veterans — and the way veterans are able to commu- nicate with the VA. McDonald even has made available his cellphone number: (513) 509-8454. “I’m hop- ing that veterans are fi nding us to be more accessible than perhaps we have been in the past,” he says. Forms are being simplifi ed. Let-


ters are being translated into plain English. Call centers have opened. As of June 30, veterans now have the option of a true digital enroll- ment process, which takes an aver- age of only 24 minutes to complete. A mobile app allowing veterans to schedule appointments quickly and easily will be released soon. Szymanski — who, at MOAA,


often helps veterans navi- gate the system, while


at home helping her father, a Vietnam veteran, do the same thing — looks forward to the day the VA’s new web- site, www.vets.gov, fulfi lls its promise of being the only website needed to access all VA services and benefi ts. At this point, it’s still a work in progress. The VA also is well on its way


to creating 100 community veteran engagement boards as a way to le- verage all community assets — not just those of the agency — to meet the needs of local veterans. “Those are a way of reaching veterans in a positive way and improving the way that they see [the] VA — as a partner instead of an uncaring bureaucracy,” Szymanski says.


The pace of change “Access continues to be the biggest issue, but solving it in a way that does not erode the quality of care is ultimately what veterans want and what our organization seeks to achieve,” says Carlos Fuentes, depu- ty director of [CONTINUES ON PAGE 68]


OCTOBER 2016 MILITARY OFFICER 55


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