Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie affirmed his promise to transform the department and improve access to care in his first State of VA Community Town Hall event since taking over at the VA in July.
Wilkie, who spoke for about 30 minutes during Thursday afternoon's online presentation, touted ways the VA is building capacity and partnership and advancing access to health care. He appeared alongside department managers who responded to questions from veterans.
Three of the major issues covered by Wilkie and the top-level managers during the three-hour online session:
VA MISSION Act
The VA MISSION Act, with the accompanying appropriations recently signed into law, make up the largest spending bill in the department's history, and will streamline veteran options to receive private-sector care, Wilkie said.
“This will fundamentally transform the VA system … give veterans and their providers more choice,” Wilkie said. “This helps us serve veterans better and helps veterans get the right care at the right time.”
It will also expand comprehensive caregiver services and provide money to modernize medical facilities.
Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, touted the act's authority to expand caregiver benefits to veterans of all eras, not just post-9/11 veterans.
Paul Lawrence, VA's undersecretary for benefits, acknowledged there are still issues with housing stipends paid under the GI Bill, but said they should be resolved within the next few months.
Housing stipends for students who've already started their fall semesters were calculated incorrectly using last year's rate. A new law requires VA to change the way it calculates housing stipends for students who attend college courses at locations other than the main campus, allowing the stipend to reflect the cost of living where the student lives, not at the college's main location.
Technical problems have caused issues with the stipend checks sent out to students. Lawrence said the VA is working to correct the issue.
“Everyone is getting paid,” he said. “Unfortunately, it's on last year's (stipend) rate. Everyone is getting paid and going to school. If you were overpaid, you keep the money. If we underpaid you, it will be reconciled.”
Throughout his June nomination hearing, Wilkie promised to reform the VA - starting with customer service. During Thursday's session, he said the VA has already taken steps to improve customer service, including on-the-spot training, reworking phone greetings, and reviewing results from surveys.
“We create a positive and consistent emotional experience that is the heart of what we do,” Wilkie said.