2014 was a roller coaster year for VA. The early months of 2014, saw VA chugging upward hacking away at the claims backlog, improving access for mental health care, home loans and providing record benefits to Veterans and their family members. In March, the Department celebrated 25 years as a cabinet-level agency.
But in May, the Phoenix scandal overshadowed all of those accomplishments. Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson took the helm and immediately ordered for VA to come clean, providing full disclosure to the public about any and all discrepancies it uncovered.
Secretary Bob McDonald continued that level of transparency and began a push to regain the trust of Veterans – visiting with Veterans from coast-to-coast – listening to their needs, their complaints and their ideas for improvement. He orders accountability and immediate action and, through our MyVA initiative, is helping VA work to ensure Veterans are in control of how, when and where they want to be served.
The VA’s biggest success of 2014 may arguably be the wakeup call that is leading the much needed change well into the new year; however, we cannot overlook what was accomplished by the vast majority of employees and volunteers that embody VA’s I CARE core values and their sense of duty to our nation’s Veterans. Their top accomplishments follow:
1. I CARE
Sec. Bob McDonald asked all VA employees and volunteers to recommit themselves to the principles of I CARE. These values — Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence — define our culture and strengthen our dedication to those we serve. They provide a baseline for the standards of behavior expected of all VA employees.
2. Medical appointments on track
Nationally, VA has completed 24 million appointments between June 1, 2014 and Oct. 31, 2014, which is a 1.4 million increase over the same time period in 2013.
3. Private-sector care for Veterans
VA made nearly 1.2 million authorizations for Veterans to receive care in the private sector from June 1, 2014 through Oct. 31, 2014, nearly doubling (48 percent increase) the authorizations made during the same period in 2013.
4. Building for the future
In 2014, VA activated 93 buildings, which resulted in 1,420,884 additional square feet for clinical, mental health, long-term care facilities, and administrative space.
5. Excellence in Service
For the fourth consecutive year, VA’s Consolidated Mail Outpatient Pharmacy received the highest customer satisfaction score among the nation’s public and private mail-order pharmacies, according to a J.D. Power study.
6. GI Bill turned 70, continues to change lives
VA celebrated the 70th anniversary of the GI Bill of Rights in 2014. In FY 2014, VA provided more than $10.8 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to Servicemembers, Veterans, and their families to enhance their economic opportunities. Since the inception of the program in 2009, more than $47 billion has been paid to more than 1.3 million Post-9/11 GI Bill participants (as of Dec. 1, 2014).
In FY14, as part of the GI Bill of Rights, VA guaranteed 440,000 home loans totaling $100 billion, while also assisting 80,000 Veterans in avoiding foreclosure, saving taxpayers over $2.7 billion. VBA has maintained the lowest foreclosure rate for 25 consecutive quarters when compared to all other types of home loans.
7. More benefits for families and survivors
VA expanded the eligibility criteria for the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to include the surviving spouses of Servicemembers who died in the line of duty after Sept. 10, 2001. VA began accepting applications by mail for the Fry Scholarship under the newly expanded eligibility criteria on Nov. 3, 2014.
8. VA Cemeteries tops in customer satisfaction
For the fifth consecutive time, VA’s National Cemetery Administration topped the American Customer Satisfaction Index’s (ACSI) independent survey of customer satisfaction. NCA achieved a customer satisfaction index of 96, the highest ACSI score in either the private or public sector in the history of the survey.
9. VA employees continue to work on the claims backlog
In FY 2014, VA decided a record-breaking 1,320,870 disability compensation and pension (rating) claims for Veterans and Survivors – the highest in VA history.
Veterans waited, on average, 119 fewer days to receive a decision on their claims compared to the previous year. The claims backlog (any claim older than 125 days) has also been reduced from the peak of 611,000 in March 2013 to 239,000 as of Nov. 30, 2014 – a 61 percent reduction and lowest number of backlogged claims in four years.
10. Fully Developed Claims exceeding goals
VA continues to exceed goals with regard to Fully Developed Claims. In FY 2014, 39 percent of claims received were submitted as Fully Developed Claims, up from three percent at initiative start in 2012.
11. More Veterans and families sign up for eBenefits
By the end of FY2014, VA had registered 4.2 million Servicemembers, Veterans, and family members in eBenefits. In addition, approximately 2,000 VSO representatives have credentials for accessing eBenefits through VBA’s new Stakeholder Enterprise Portal, which enables them to file online compensation claims on behalf of Veterans.
12. VA goes digital
Under VA’s technology initiatives, one major achievement has been its transition from an outmoded paper-intensive process to a fully electronic processing system, the Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS).
Previously VA processed 5,000 tons of paper per year; now it is processing 93 percent of the disability claims inventory electronically. VA has converted over 1 billion documents to digital images that are being maintained in Veterans’ electronic claim folders. In FY 2014, 1.4 million rating decisions and 820,000 claims were completed using VBMS.
13. VA keeps reducing the number of homeless Veterans
VA, together with federal, state, and local partners, reduced the estimated number of homeless Veterans by 33 percent as noted in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 2014 Point-in-Time (PIT) Estimate of Homelessness.
In FY 2014 alone, VA provided services to more than 260,000 homeless or at-risk Veterans in VHA’s homeless programs. Not all Veterans required an intensive homeless program intervention, but for those that did, nearly 71,500 Veterans were either placed in permanent housing or prevented from becoming homeless.
14. VA hires more mental healthcare professionals
VA hired 782 psychologists and psychiatrists in 2014 as well as 257 other mental health providers, such as social workers, nurses and licensed professional counselors, and 45 mental health administrative support employees. These professionals are filling new positions and existing vacancies to meet the growing requirements for mental health services.
15. Veterans Crisis Line is expanded to help more Veterans
In response to the President’s Executive Order, VA expanded the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent, and enhanced its partnerships with community mental health providers.
In FY 2014, the Veterans Crisis Line (VCL) answered 374,050 phone calls, assisted 64,593 people through chat services and 13,463 people through text services. VCL responders assisted in sending emergency services (rescue) to 9,719 Veterans. Call volume answered by VCL in 2014 increased by 30 percent. Chat contacts increased by 18 percent, and Text contacts increased by 19 percent.
16. VA expands care for Veterans with military sexual trauma
Under authority from VACAA, VA expanded eligibility for Veterans in need of mental health care due to military sexual trauma (MST) that occurred during their military service. The expansion primarily pertains to Reservists and National Guard members participating in weekend drill, gives the authority to offer Veterans the appropriate care and services needed to treat conditions resulting from MST that occurred during a period of inactive duty training.
17. More healthcare options for women Veterans
VA has enhanced provision of care to women Veterans by focusing on the goal of developing Designated Women’s Health Providers (DWHP) at every site where women access VA. VA has trained over 2,000 providers in women’s health and is in the process of training additional providers to ensure that every woman Veteran has the opportunity to receive her primary care from a DWHP.
VA now operates a Women Veterans Call Center (WVCC), created to contact women Veterans and let them know about the services they may be eligible for. From April 2013 to April 2014 the WVCC received over 9,600 incoming calls and made over 93,000 outbound calls.
18. VA to reorganize and improve
VA is working to reorganize the department for success, guided by ideas and initiatives from Veterans, employees, and all of our stakeholders. This reorganization is a part of the MyVA initiative and is designed to provide Veterans with a seamless, integrated, and responsive customer service experience.
The Department developed the Blue Print for Excellence– a detailed vision of how VA will evolve as a model national health care provider delivering both excellent health care and an excellent experience of care to all Veterans served.
19. Enhancing accountability
In 2014, VA established the Office of Accountability Review to ensure leadership accountability for improprieties related to patient scheduling and access to care, whistleblower retaliation, and related matters that impact public trust in VA.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) certified VA under their Whistleblower Protection Certification Program after VA worked to achieve compliance and protect employees who identify or report problems from unlawful retaliation. VA also worked closely with OSC to successfully resolve whistleblower retaliation complaints filed by three individuals from the VA Phoenix Health Care System.
In 2014, VA also began posting regular data updates that show progress in efforts to accelerate access to quality health care for Veterans who have been waiting for appointments. This data includes both pending and completed appointments at the facility level.
20. VA looks to recruit the best and brightest in the medical field
VA faces a competitive market to recruit and retain highly skilled health care providers, particularly mental health specialists, given the growing demand for these jobs in the private sector. Complex hiring processes for clinicians, to include requirements for boarding, credentialing, privileging, physicals, security/backgrounds, add to the department’s challenge. We are working to close the pay gap between VA and private sector clinicians to make VA an employer of choice.
21. VA listening to Veterans and VA employees
In the aftermath of Phoenix, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald instructed all VA facilities to hold town hall meetings to engage Veterans as well as the VA employees that serve them. As a result of that first round of meetings coast-to-coast, Secretary McDonald mandated quarterly town hall meetings as a way to continue to improve communications with Veterans. These quarterly town-hall events are an important step toward improving the delivery of benefits and services and rebuilding trust among all those VA serves.
Looking forward to 2015
While we recognize these milestones, we continue to tackle the challenges of the department. We also embrace the opportunities for transformation that they bring.
To achieve lasting success for the department, VA must develop a strategy for meeting an increased demand for services and benefits, and for meeting the needs of a changing Veteran population. This includes preparing for the increasing numbers of women Veterans coming to VA for care; looking at the unique needs of post-9/11 Veterans; and using innovative approaches to reach every Veteran who needs services.
Sec. Bob McDonald wrote in the Baltimore Sun in October “Veterans need VA, and many more Americans benefit from VA.” By focusing on three fundamental priorities in 2015 – rebuilding trust, improving service by putting the Veteran first, and setting the course for longer-term excellence and reform – VA’s employees can better serve our Veterans and the American people.