Living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction.
My life’s purpose has always been to improve lives. That’s why I became a Boy Scout, a West Point Cadet, and a U.S. Army officer. That’s also why I joined Procter & Gamble, where I worked to improve the lives of people through P&G brands, and why I joined the VA, where we work every day to improve the lives of the 22 million men and women who are America’s veterans.
At VA, we’re reminded every day of veterans’ outsized contributions to our country. It’s our pride and privilege to care for those “who shall have borne the battle,” in Lincoln’s famous words. Without question, it’s the best, most inspiring mission in government, serving for the best, most deserving people in the nation.
In the past nine months, I’ve learned that there is no substitute for VA. Veterans need VA, and Americans everywhere benefit from VA — from VA research contributing to major breakthroughs in medical science (three Nobel Prizes, seven Lasker Awards, the implantable cardiac pacemaker, the first successful liver transplants, and the nicotine patch to help smokers quit); from VA training of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals, including 70 percent of America’s physicians; and from VA’s highly specialized expertise in delivering clinical and rehabilitative services to wounded warriors.
Over 350,000 people work at VA. One third are veterans. All have formally committed themselves to VA’s mission and “I CARE” values: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence.
Among VA’s many outstanding public servants are Bill Bauman and Ann Spungen, who have spent the past 25 years working to improve the lives of Veterans who have suffered spinal cord injuries. Dr. Bauman was an endocrinologist at the Bronx VA when he hired Ann Spungen, an applied physiologist, to help test the respiratory functions of paralyzed veterans. When Dr. Bauman shared his dream of learning how spinal cord injuries caused many parts of the body to function poorly, Spungen quit her job to join his research.
In 2001, they established a national center for the study of medical consequences related to spinal cord injuries, where teams of specialists in internal medicine, neurology, rehabilitation medicine and other fields investigate the many effects of spinal cord injuries on the body. Together, they have developed many innovative approaches, effective interventions, and drug therapies to reduce complications and greatly improve the quality of life in paralyzed patients. Last year, Drs. Bauman and Spungen were both honored with the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal.
But remember: Health care is just one of nine VA lines of business. The others include life insurance, mortgage insurance, education, pensions, disability compensation, and memorial affairs, and VA employees have distinguished themselves in those areas as well. They have cut the disability claims backlog by 70 percent in the past 24 months. They guarantee two million home loans, with the lowest foreclosure rate and highest satisfaction rate in mortgage lending. For the past decade, the American Customer Satisfaction Index has ranked VA’s cemetery system the top customer-service organization in the nation, public or private. Since 2004, the same index has also shown that Veterans give VA health care higher ratings than patients at most private hospitals.
VA faces several challenges — changing veterans demographics, aging facilities, increasing commitments without commensurate increases in resources, and rising expectations of customer service — but our dedicated workforce has already made great progress toward meeting those challenges. We have shrunk the electronic wait list by 55 percent and are now completing 97 percent of appointments within 30 days of the Veteran’s preferred date, 20 percent on the same day. We have hired 8,000 additional medical professionals, increased authorizations for care outside VA by 45 percent, and have rolled out a major new initiative called “MyVA” implementing the ideas of both veterans and VA employees to improve the experience of both at VA.
This is an exciting time to be at VA. We have the opportunity to lengthen our lead in areas where we’ve always excelled, chart new ground in emerging or evolving areas of health care, and improve the lives of veterans, their families, and their survivors for decades to come. For a purpose in life, few could be more rewarding.
Bob McDonald is the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. This article originally appeared in the Federal Times as part of 2015’s Public Service Recognition Week.