While we are not the VA, we do work with the federal benefit provider daily, trying to connect our veterans to important national benefits capable of changing veteran quality of life. This week I sat down with the Melrose Free Press to detail the local impact of VA issues. They are large issues, real issues, and need immediate action. In order to help detail the local impact for this space, I will respond to the IAVA's confidence plan from a local perspective.
1.) Appoint a Post-9/11 veteran to the top VA post. More poignant than an IAVA appointment is the IAVA's point about a dynamic leader. We need one that can sell the VA as an important federal post for talented individuals looking for rewarding careers. VA management needs more fluid thinkers and a lessened focus on numbers. Veterans are not statistics and each cohort has its own challenges. The next secretary should look to move the VA from a organization focused on statistics to a service-based organization capable of dynamic response. Most vets just want answers from real people...the wait is expected.
2.) Initiate a full criminal investigation and punish all violators to the full extent of the law. In the military we fight and serve using codes of conducts and values. When we violate those ethics, we are punished severely (and should be in many cases). The same should be true for the VA or an federal employees. Locally, veterans do not trust the VA and if ethical and legal violations are not punished, this lack of faith will continue.
3.) Implement the recommendations of interim IG report for Phoenix. Simply put, this report recommends a full scale review of all VA facilities. We agree, implement these recommendations now. Locally, in my time as VSO, veterans continually state and believe that the VA delays claims and services, waiting in some instances for "me (the veteran) to die." A review will help erase this belief and prove the VA has nothing to hide and everything to gain by being transparent and honest.
4.) Pass the VA Management Accountability Act. There are some road blocks to removing poor performers at the VA. These road blocks need to go away. Our offices post phone numbers for complaints against our service delivery at the local and state level. We want to get better and welcome honesty. The VA should too.
5.) Support the IAVA 2014 Policy Agenda. These recommendations are self explanatory and are as follows: standardize VA practices nationwide, train employees better, provide incentives for performance, smooth the transition from soldier to veteran and invest in technology. Our Massachusetts Secretary of Veteran Services Coleman Nee continually pushes an idea statewide for local VSO delivery - a veteran should be able to move town to town and get the same level of service regardless of the VSO/city/town. The same should be true for the VA. If you walk into a VA facility, you should know what you are going to get. It manages expectations, provides a better service platform and builds trust.
6.) Fully fund the VA to levels recommended by the independent budget. Several leading veteran organizations published an independent budget in 2014 recommending $4 billion more than current VA projection models. It's time to realize that social services are expensive and the needs of veterans, although very worth it, do not come cheap. This is one of those budgets (veterans) that should not be tied to models focusing on fraud over quality of care. And that is true at all levels of government including ours.
7.) Support best-in-class non-profit organizations that fills the gaps. While the IAVA and other great national organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project and NEADS help provide services the VA cannot, local organizations also supplement services. We recommend the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, Heroes in Transition, the Boston Wounded Vet Run and Disabled and Limbless Veterans. We also recommend that if you are unsure where your money is going when donating and supporting local charities, call us. We keep good lists and can help research donation destinations for your piece of mind.
8.) Combat Suicide. This epidemic is beyond words and needs to end. Many soldier and veteran suicides are related to mental health and substance abuse issues often created and exacerbate by military service. We need to change the dialogue locally, not asking whether a veteran deserves benefits and expanded services, but whether we deserve the freedoms we have thanks to the men and women who gave up their lives and struggle daily to preserve it. The best intervention in the suicide epidemic is acknowledging the problem, changing the dialogue and granting services before, not after, the problems get beyond our reach.
This is a good list and emphasizes how the VA can work in addition to local organizations to improve veteran quality of life and benefit delivery. If enacted, many of these proposals and focuses would help improve the veteran's perception of the VA and local options, making it more likely that they will reach out for help when needed. The current approach is not correct. Veterans are people, not numbers. It's time to treat them with the type of dignity proclaimed in speeches, but not followed when executing policy.