By Jonathan Kaupanger

It’s a critical time for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Having gone through what was our crisis in 2014, in clinical terms, it was a near-death experience,” VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin told CBS Radio’s Connecting Vets in a recent interview.

“We have to watch the system very closely,” Shulkin said. Doing what he calls intensive monitoring while making sure the VA is progressing in the right direction.

Shulkin mentioned wait times as one area where the Department of Veterans Affairs has made some progress or at least shows transparency. The VA has recently launched a new access and quality tool that gives vets an easy to use way of accessing patient wait time and quality of care information.

The VA’s Access to Care website allows veterans to put in their zip code and see all the wait times for all VA facilities in their area.  This can be sorted by clinic type, visit type, and distance.

screen shot 2017 06 19 at 3 53 39 pm State of VA: Wait times at facilities, opioid abuse, accountability & more

Screen shot from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs website. (U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs)

The purpose of this website is to give veterans a choice so they can choose where they want to be seen and know how long it will take for the appointment. “Veterans must have access to information that is clear and understandable to make informed decisions about their healthcare,” said Shulkin. “No other health-care system in the country releases this type of information on wait times. This allows veterans to see how VA is performing.”

Knowing that you have a wait time is one thing, but actually getting care for your needs is something else. This is where the Choice Program comes into play. The Choice Program allows vets to access care in the community if their wait time at a VA Medical Center is too long. This program has been around for a couple years but is only just now starting to work out for people. “In the beginning the performance was complex,” he said. “We have made 72 contract modifications and now it’s easier to use.”

More veterans have been using choice, in fact, March, April, and May of this year have been the busiest time for this program. Close to three million more veterans have received a community care appointment in just the first six months of 2017, than the entire year before.

The opioid epidemic is another problem that is very important to the VA and Secretary Shulkin. “The VA, as it often does, notices those major problems before the rest of the country.” Shulkin continued by saying that the VA recognized this issue in 2010 and began the implementation of an action plan and reduced the use of opioids by 33% in seven years.

Finding other ways to treat pain was key to keeping veterans from being addicted in the first place. The VA now uses a step-wise method to treating pain. This includes things like yoga, mind and body techniques, and acupuncture to name a few. “We are continuing to look towards other types of therapies as well,” said Shulkin. “Such as transcendental meditation, biofeedback and other therapies that have been studied to show to be quite effective.”

Secretary Shulkin also discussed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act and how it will benefit VA. “We were keeping leaders that frankly shouldn’t be part of this organization,” he said. After becoming secretary he came to the conclusion that he needed more authority to remove people. So he went to Congress and they agreed with him.

“Interestingly enough, and most people don’t talk about this too much, but the Accountability Bill also gives us  new authorities to hire.” Once the bill is signed into law, medical center directors will have the ability to directly hire local staff for their centers. Shulkin added, “Removing people who need to go but getting the right people on board – both are important.”

The secretary knows just how important his job is, “I’m sure every secretary feels their time is critical,” he said. “If we don’t get this right now, my fear is VA won’t be there for future Americans. The world is a dangerous place. If past history tells us anything, there will likely be new conflicts and it’s our job to be prepared.”

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