VA Secretary Wants To Focus On Rural, Native American Veterans

Aug 2, 2019

Credit U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

About 10 percent of all adults in Wyoming are veterans. That group has long faced issues with getting access to proper medical treatment. But a new law hopes to overhaul the system and turn the focus back on the veterans. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie ahead of his upcoming visit to Wyoming about how he has tried to improve the VA over the last year.

Robert Wilkie: My first objective was to calm the place down. It had been buffeted by bad stories for years, some of those stories deserved. There had been turmoil in the leadership. My job was to bring in people who understood the culture of military service and spoke the language, and then get out to the rest of the country and talk to veterans and look at what we were doing. And the other thing was to set the VA on a trajectory where we could become a modern 21st century health administration, which means reform our supply chain, reform our human resources processes, make it easier to hire people, create an electronic health record that begins when the young American enters the military and then is ready for us when that American leaves the service. And then to implement the President's vision for opening the aperture on choice for veterans with the MISSION Act, which is the most transformative legislative proposal, legislative instruction, since the GI Bill was signed by President Roosevelt 75 years. So a lot, a lot to do.

Catherine Wheeler: So you brought up the MISSION Act, and it went into effect last month, I believe.

RW: June 6, that's right.

CW: So can you explain what its purpose is and how it will work or some of its biggest points?

RW: So the MISSION Act has two components for me that stick out. The first is that it puts veterans on the same plane as their neighbors by allowing veterans access to urgent care across the country. The design there is to keep them out of emergency rooms so that when they have a sore throat, or cold, or the flu, or a sprained ankle, they can go to a to urgent care and be treated and not have to wait in an emergency room. The second part of the MISSION Act is designed to provide our veterans with the option of seeking care and the private sector if the VA cannot provide them with the medical services that they need. And the conditions for that option are based on distance-something that the people of Wyoming know a great deal about- and wait times. And the way it works is you ask for an appointment with VA, but if we cannot provide that specialty care, then the veteran will be allowed access to what we call the decision support tool. That'll be handled by a medical professional. And we will have a list of medical providers that that veteran can access. We will set up the appointment and the veteran will have that option. The last thing is this closes the loop on one of the last items leftover from the Vietnam conflict, that it says that we will provide financial and resource support for families, those families who take care of Vietnam veterans. We have not done that in the past. We are beginning the process of putting that program in place for those who served in Vietnam.

CW: Like you said, so part of the MISSION Act is to provide some funding for families who take care of Vietnam veterans. Most of Wyoming's veterans did serve in the Vietnam conflict, so a big challenge in the state is aging. And so what are the ways that in addition to this, the VA is supporting those aging veterans?

RW: We're changing our focus, we're making sure that we have in our VA facilities, people who specialize in the needs of that aging population. And when I talked earlier about HR reform, what I focus on, is allowing the medical center director at Sheridan or Cheyenne the opportunity, the imperative to create a workforce that reflects the population of veterans within the state of Wyoming. So tailoring the medical community to the specific needs of the population is really the first step. The other thing is as our populations age, we do need to provide those nursing facilities that our veterans need.

CW: And on that same topic, I know the state has been working for a while now. And they're proposing to build a new state-run skilled nursing facility, and Wyoming's only state that doesn't have a facility like that. And so they're applying for a couple of million dollars to build that facility. Do you consider that a high priority project?

RW: We do our best to support state initiatives. And that's not just with the nursing homes. That's with state VA cemeteries. We provide grants, we provide technical support, we're certainly going to do that in Wyoming. And I've talked to [Sen.] Dr. Barrasso and Congresswoman Liz Cheney about that. So we'll be providing that, that support when while making expand.

CW: I have seen reports that Native Americans serve in the military at higher rates than other demographics, and but they also face other issues at higher rates, like homelessness, lacking insurance, service-connected disability. Are there any special ways you want to address supporting the needs of Native veterans?

RW: I do want to focus on Native America, and rural America, meaning Western America really. You're correct. Native Americans serve in higher numbers than any other group in the country. They have unique problems. I'm trying to address those on several levels: one, the practical, the other spiritual. I have reversed many of the regulations put in place by the last administration on expressions of spiritual and religious nature. Sheridan [VA] just put up a sweat lodge on its grounds to meet the needs of the Native community there. In terms of homelessness and also substance abuse, we are reaching out not only to the veterans themselves but to Indian Health, to make sure that our relationship with them is robust. And also, we engage the state and local governments, as well as the NGOs, the VSOs, to help us find those Native Americans whom we have not been able to reach. I've been spending a lot of time on the Southern plains. I'm coming to Wyoming, Native Alaska, as well as the Native populations of the Pacific to make sure that they received the attention that they deserve. And we have expanded our budget for Native programs, and I'm very proud that we are having that focus.

CW: Robert Wilkie is the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Thank you, Secretary, for taking the time to speak with me.

RW: Catherine, thank you for your time and courtesy, and I look forward to seeing you in Wyoming in a few weeks.