Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told lawmakers on Thursday that by the end of 2016 veterans who walk into or call a VA medical center will have their clinical needs addressed "that day," while 90 percent of veterans appealing a compensation decision will -- with Congress' help -- get an answer within one year.
The ambitious commitments were two of a dozen "breakthrough priorities" that McDonald detailed for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Eight of the priorities are specific to serving veterans and four are to meet department needs, but McDonald said Senators should "make no mistake -- all 12 are designed to improve the delivery of timely care and benefits to veterans .... We understand this will be a challenge, but we are committed to producing results for veterans."
The priorities also include:
-- Having all VA medical centers fully staffed up front with knowledgeable service-oriented employees.
-- Making sure vets needing to see a community provider do so within 30 days at least 85 percent of the time.
-- A disability claims backlog no more than 10 percent of inventory.
-- A more intuitive and efficient website for accessing information.
-- A well-staffed and courteous crisis hotline reachable by all veterans 24/7.
-- A more efficient and understandable compensation and pension exam process.
-- Continued progress in ending chronic veteran homelessness.
-- Ensuring all VA employees are trained to high customer-service standards.
-- Having 95 percent of all medical center directorships filled.
-- Closing 100 percent of current cybersecurity weaknesses.
-- Ensuring that half of all information technology projects are on time and on budget, with IT executives' performance goals tied to strategy goals.
-- A more efficient medical-supply chain that will result in $150 million in cost avoidances redirected to veteran programs.
One of the hurdles McDonald will face is in taming the growing backlog of appeals claims, which in some cases have dragged on for eight years as veterans continue to add evidence to their case.
The process has been complicated as well in recent years as a result of VA working to reduce its first-time disability claims backlog. McDonald reported that the claims backlog -- those not acted on within 125 days of filing -- has been reduced from its 2013 peak of 611,000 to 82,000.
The progress was made over several years in part because the VA put additional personnel on the problem and then by moving from the traditional paper-based system to one an entirely electronic one.
"We decided 1.4 million disability compensation and pension claims for Veterans and survivors -- the highest in VA history for a single year" because of the new system, McDonald said.
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the emphasis on first-time claims only increased the number of appeals and "simply shifted the problem."
"And so the 440,000 appeals that currently are pending is, in my view, unacceptable," Blumenthal said.
McDonald did not dispute the issue, but pointed out that taming the appeals backlog is "one of our breakthrough objectives."
"Assuming we can work together on the legislation, we are planning to get 90 percent of appeals resolved within one year. And I think we can all sign up for that objective," McDonald said.
Under current law veterans may continue to add evidence to their file, which helps to draw out the decision time.
McDonald said the law was developed some 100 years ago and needs to be changed.
He did not spell out how he would change it but said he wants to work with Congress to come up with a solution.