Prior to 2014, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs faced a great deal of negative press for allegations of mishandling medical care for veterans, including the creation of false waiting lists that delayed crucial treatment. Since the appointment of Robert McDonald in 2014, the department has conducted an evaluation and drafted new strategies to improve the way Veterans Affairs operates.
“[Veterans Affairs] has got the best mission in the country, maybe in the world, taking care of people who have preserved our freedom,” McDonald says. “We’ve got a great set of values...and obviously those were being violated.”
McDonald worked with the VA program to completely overhaul the system in order to better accommodate and treat veterans by incorporating not just medical care, but focusing on job training and housing guidance.
Retraining current employees, implementing 12 new leaders with varied industry experiences to positions within the VA, and hiring an IT expert who could find and implement the best replacements for the outdated computer programs used at the VA were all imperative to redirecting the department’s vision.
“We’re trying to run it like the very best customer service organizations in the world, and that’s our vision: to be the best customer service organization in government,” says McDonald.
1.3 million servicemen and women will become veterans over the next three years, creating potentially serious implications for an organization that was already overwhelmed by a large number of aging veterans two years ago.
“The aging of the veteran population created the demand that far outstripped the capacity of the organization,” McDonald says. “We’ve got to build the capacity, build the ability, so that twenty years from now when those service members getting out of the service today or next year are aging, that capability will be there.”
McDonald also emphasized how important it is to get to servicemen and women before they exit their service. The Veterans Transition Assistance Program (TAP) exists to prepare those leaving the military with resources, including physicals and resume writing lessons.
“We try to get to the service member 120 days or more before they get out of the military. The military commander and I both stand up and say, ‘We’re taking responsibility for your transition,’” McDonald explains.
Without this aid, many veterans face a daunting gap.
“Any gap can be really, really bad. That gap, for example, could result in homelessness,” says McDonald. Approximately 47,000 veterans are homeless, and 1.4 million more are at risk of homelessness because of poverty and poor housing.
To build better support networks and care within the Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency identifies and develops strategic partnerships. The strong partnerships in Pittsburgh, according to McDonald, make the city a great place to be a veteran.
McDonald also pointed out that the model of Veterans Treatment Court in cities like Pittsburgh helps accommodate veterans facing legal trouble. Incarceration, McDonald says, is often a sure ticket to homelessness. Veterans Treatment Court considers military experience and takes a more mental health and drug treatment stance in its rulings.
Christopher Howard, president of Robert Morris University and Air Force Academy graduate, invited McDonald to speak at RMU’s commencement ceremony this spring. McDonald also has family in the region.
“[Pittsburgh] is a great community, and I’m glad to be part of it."
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