By David Giacomini
The Department of Veterans Affairs employs over 36,000 doctors and other medical staff, making it the largest healthcare system in the country. That being said, the VA is responsible for the medical care of more than 9,000,000 veterans annually, a truly daunting task. Many of the problems faced by the organization are long wait times for veterans to receive care and treatment. A scandal over this issue forced the resignation of the previous secretary in 2014. While wait times have steadily decreased, they still pose a concern. Another worry for the VA is the upcoming expiration of the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act, a healthcare plan which provided funding for veterans to seek care outside of the VA system. While this program has also helped cut down on the backlog of veterans seeking care, it is set to expire in August.
The current secretary of Veterans Affairs is Dr. David Shulkin, he has taken steps to improve conditions. One of the first obstacles he faced was the hiring ban on government jobs put in place by President Trump after he took office. For an organization looking to fill 45,000 job vacancies, this was not a good thing. However, of those vacancies, 41,000 positions were able to become exempt because they were necessary for “public safety.” Shulkin is also working with both Democrats and Republicans in Congress to renew the Veterans Choice plan before it expires. In a recent interview with NPR, Shulkin stated that one of his biggest concerns was in providing assistance to veterans contemplating suicide. Since 2001, the rate of suicide amongst veterans have gone up 35% with as many as twenty veterans committing suicide every day. In an effort to combat this, the VA has hired and trained many new clinicians to work with their suicide crisis hotline and have opened new call centers in Georgia and New York. Shulkin proudly said that these measures had allowed the VA to lower the number of unanswered calls to below one percent. With all these improvements, though, the VA still faces a number of difficult tasks ahead.
Unfortunately, the problems the Department of Veterans Affairs are dealing with now are not necessarily new. The United States has not had a good record of providing aid to veterans of the conflicts we fight. After the American Revolution, Continental Army officers formed a coup with the intention of intimidating Congress to raise taxes to pay for their overdue salaries. While the “Newburgh Conspiracy” ultimately amounted to nothing, a much more visible event occurred with many veterans of World War One. In the summer of 1932, when the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, over 150,000 veterans marched on Washington D.C. in an attempt to get the government to give them promised cash bonuses. The veterans camped on the National Mall for six weeks before the demonstration was broken up using active duty Army troops. Today, one of the challenges Secretary Shulkin identified when it came to hiring is the prevailing negative view of the VA. While not everybody might be willing to go into the field of medicine, it is not hard to show support for veterans through volunteering with veterans groups or donating. It is important to back members of our armed forces, both past and present.
David is a junior History major and Photography minor.