The following are the prepared remarks delivered by Secretary Denis McDonough to VSOs during a virtual meeting held earlier today regarding the American Rescue Plan.
On behalf of all enrolled Veterans and the families who care for them—along with those Veterans who are in the process of enrolling for VA healthcare—I’m grateful to those doing the hard work of shaping the American Rescue Plan. The plan is important for all Americans, and especially important for our country’s Veterans.
It builds upon the vision President Biden has for restoring the hope of our nation, repairing the strength of our economy, and rebuilding our communities and our families—compelling us to work together as we build and sustain a stronger America and recover from the global pandemic.
A word to all of the organizations here who support our Veterans and their families. Thank you, too, for your tireless work. Veterans serving Veterans and families serving families, your organizations are and have always been in the best position to understand what Veterans and their families want and need.
And our historic partnership remains essential to our shared success. It is more important than ever.
Our nation owes you a debt of gratitude, and I’m honored to join you in caring for our Veterans. The ARP will help us do that.
The virus has crippled our economy, our healthcare systems, and devastated Veterans and their families across the country.
It’s going to take extraordinary effort to defeat this threat, and the American Rescue Plan is the extraordinary effort and decisive action the country needs.
The President’s plan will work across federal, state, and local governments and public and private entities and get resources into the hands of Americans who need them.
It will make us a stronger nation.
And it is indispensable to America’s Veterans and VA.
This plan supports our priority of providing Veterans timely, world-class healthcare. Here’s a few things those targeted funds will allow us to do.
It will allow us to ensure that our 9.3 million enrolled Veterans will not have healthcare delayed. The pandemic has resulted in 19.7 million cancelled, delayed or moved appointments.
These changes are not only taxing on our Veterans—they may also result in additional costs, forced cancellation, and delays.
The plan will allow the Veterans Health Administration and our Information Technology team to sustain and expand telehealth capabilities critical for video-to-home telehealth visits.
Let me put that in some context.
Because of the pandemic, telehealth visits have skyrocketed from about 2,500 daily visits in February of 2020 to almost 45,000 daily visits in January of 2021. That’s an increase of over 1,700%.
It will provide sustained support to Veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness as a result of economic conditions made worse by the pandemic.
It will enhance our contact care capacity to handle an unprecedented volume of inquiries from Veterans and their caregivers.
It will improve our emergency readiness with acquisition of specialized equipment, more Personal Protective Equipment or PPE, and mobile care facilities that can supplement medical centers’ capacity during periods of accelerated need.
And it will allow us to update VA medical centers and facilities that are, on average, approaching 60 years old by ensuring pandemic readiness, creating supply chain improvements, and better managing patient flow.
Now, let me offer just a few more specifics on what we will be able to accomplish for Veterans and their families.
We’ll modernize our badly antiquated supply chain system and accelerate the department’s transition to the Defense Medical Logistics Standard Support (DMLSS).
This modernization effort will significantly improve the timeliness, flexibility, and economy of managing complex supply chain requirements.
I don’t have to tell you that the supply chain was stress-tested during the pandemic response. These additional funds will ensure we have PPE where we need it, when we need it.
We’ll help VBA reduce compensation and pension claim backlogs that grew during the pandemic. In March of 2020, those claims stood at 76,000. Today, there are over 212,000 claims.
We’ll ensure the Board of Veterans Appeals accelerates the claims appeals process so Veterans can more quickly receive compensation they’ve earned. Further reduction of the claims backlog with increased funding for VBA and the Board of Veterans’ Appeals is key to ensuring that Veterans and their families have access to their benefits.
And, finally, the plan will help us prevent the spread of COVID by continuing to expand VA’s telework capabilities—keeping employees safe, which means keeping them productive, working to serve Veterans.
We’ve learned some hard lessons from this pandemic. But the most important lesson is that defeating the virus is a shared challenge and responsibility.
The American Rescue Plan does that, and more.
It provides the resources necessary to improve our response to the pandemic and defend against future outbreaks.
In short, the President’s plan provides us with the resources we desperately need to protect our institutions, our infrastructure, our systems, and—most important—the Veterans we serve and the people serving them.
We will complete the mission.
With the American Rescue Plan, we will have the resources to do it.
The Honorable Denis McDonough is the 11th Secretary of Veterans Affairs.