75 years of VHA, how have its patients faired?

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This year the Veterans Health Administration is marking 75 years of operations. Its leadership says the agency has come a long way in those decades, as a continuously learning organization. For a view of VHA from the point view of its constituents, Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the National Legislative Director of Disabled American Veterans, Joy Ilem.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Ilem, good to have you on.

Joy Ilem: Thank you.

Tom Temin: So now that we are at the beginning of a new administration, and there has been a lot of comings and goings for a couple of administration’s of VA secretaries, in terms of service delivery quality of Veterans Health Administration, how does it look from your members standpoint?

Joy Ilem: The Department of Veterans Affairs and especially VHA is very important to DAV members. As service disabled veterans, so many of our members use the VA health care system, and they need a lifetime of care and support. And we’re always very supportive of VHA, and all of the great programs and services that they offer.

Tom Temin: So you would say that Disabled American Veterans, the veterans themselves are generally satisfied?

Joy Ilem: Generally satisfied. We’ve done surveys in the past of our membership, and again, because all of our members are service disabled, many of them do use the VA health care system and find that they get good quality care from VA.

Tom Temin: Alright. So what would you like VA, if anything, then to do differently? What are the challenges that you in the members see ahead?

Joy Ilem: Well, I think one thing that VA, they’ve kept their focus on their mission of really serving our nation’s ill and injured veterans, and they’ve had some very unique affiliations academically that have really made the VA system what it is today. Their focus on war related injuries continues to be important, as well as all of their supportive services that they have for veterans, including for veterans who are experiencing homelessness or need vocational rehabilitation or mental health services. VA, again, they’re doing a great job on their specialized services like blind rehabilitation, spinal cord injury, limb loss and care for veterans who have experienced amputation. One of the other things that we find incredibly important is the research that’s really veteran specific in VA, which makes it unique. And they’re also trying to take those research findings and really try to come up with unique treatments based on evidence for care for veterans. So this is one of their strengths, and certainly makes it a really unique system for disabled veterans.

Tom Temin: And what about the out of VA network services, the community services that have become an increasing part of the whole system of health care delivery, maybe your members use that less perhaps than those that are not disabled?

Joy Ilem: I don’t know if they use it less, there’s certain locations or certain times that VA is unable to provide either care in a timely way, or for some reason they don’t have a certain type of provider. So they’ve always been using community care. What’s different with the onset of the most recent Mission Act, which expanded access to care in the community, is VA really trying to integrate that care and develop a specialized network for veterans who do need to use care in the community for either part or some of their care. While we support that totally, and we know that provides veterans the best access to getting the care they need, in some cases, we just want to make sure that that care is quality. VA is very research focused and evidence based on its treatment, we want to make sure those providers in the community are held to the same standards as VA holds its own providers. And that veterans who do use to community services, that that’s integrated back into their health record so that they’re still really getting the advantage of VA’s whole health model of care.

Tom Temin: Is there anything you would like to see the new Congress do legislatively for VA?

Joy Ilem: So typically, the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee who oversee VA services, health care and benefits programs have been doing a great job. They’ve been really aggressive and we look forward to, again, bipartisan support from those committees to really address gaps and services, funding issues, a variety of topics that VA still may be struggling with. Or, for example, like on suicide prevention, this is something they’ve really focused on in the past, Congress just passed two major legislative measures in the 116th. Congress and now there’ll be an implementation phase. So oversight is going to be essential for Congress to provide VA and make sure that they’re connecting with the new administration and be in support of the VA

Tom Temin: And what have you seen on the operational issues that plagued the VA for the past few years, such as getting appointments, and that kind of thing, and also protecting its own staff and the visitors there from the COVID-19 deal?

Joy Ilem: Well, the pandemic has certainly up-ended health care systems around the world, and VA is no different certainly. They had to take a lot of early measures due to the pandemic and COVID-19. But they got their feet on the ground right away and really expanded access to telehealth, trying to make sure that veterans continued to get the treatment that they needed, their medications or mental health services, everything that they could provide. And just having a very limited number of veterans who really needed to come in for reasons to keep everyone safe. And they’re already starting their vaccination program of veterans. In fact, my dad is a 95 year old World War Two veteran and I just took him there to get his first COVID injection vaccine. So they’re being very progressive. They want to get the veteran community, their enrolled population, vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Tom Temin: God bless your dad, let’s hope he continues for quite a few more years now that he’s vaccinated. And what’s your best advice for Denis McDonough presuming he will be confirmed as the next VA secretary?

Joy Ilem: We look forward to working and hopefully his confirmation will go smoothly. It’s so important to get these positions filled immediately. VHA is the largest integrated health care system in the nation, overseeing the benefits and services that are provided for our nation’s ill and injured veterans is so critical. We want to be supportive as an organization of hopefully the new secretary and we want to make sure that the mission is continued and the resources are there to provide timely quality care to veterans who need it.

Tom Temin: Joy Ilem is National Legislative Director for Disabled American Veterans. Thanks so much for joining me.

Joy Ilem: Thank you for having me.

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