Veteran disability claims, homelessness and COVID-19 vaccines were topics VA Secretary Denis McDonough spoke about during a press conference Oct. 20 in Washington D.C.
More than 3,800 toxic exposure claims have been approved for Gulf War Veterans, and McDonough noted that this is the first time Veterans from that era received presumptive status on claims for asthma, sinusitis and rhinitis. Veterans have received millions of dollars in benefits so far at about a 62% approval rate.
“We’re not going to wait on Congress to act on this,” he said. “We’re acting ourselves, and we’ll have more news on that front soon.”
The conditions in these new claims, along with those filed for conditions related to Blue Water Navy and Agent Orange exposures that were approved in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, have led to a surge in the claims backlog, McDonough said.
To address the surge, McDonough said VA is hiring and training 2,000 new claims processors. Additionally, he said funding from the American Rescue Plan would cover overtime pay for claims processors, and VA will use more budget resources for claims processing. He said the goal is to reduce the claims backlog – currently at more than 200,000 – to 100,00 by 2024.
The secretary recently visited “Veterans Row” in Los Angeles, just outside the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. Los Angeles has the largest number of homeless Veterans in the country. McDonough said a number of partners work to get those Veterans into housing. During his visit, he said he met a Veteran who needed housing and help. The partners had the Veteran in a hotel that night and at the West Los Angeles housing complex the next day.
While there, McDonough announced two steps addressing Veterans’ homelessness in Los Angeles: The first is to get everyone currently living on “Veterans Row” into housing by November, and the second is to get an additional 500 homeless Veterans in Los Angeles into housing by the end of this year – making sure they’re in a home for the holidays.
McDonough said Veterans have received more than 228,000 third shots and booster shots from VA. He said Veterans, their families and caregivers should stay in touch with their local VA facility to stay informed about availability.
He also spoke about the deadline for VA health care employees to meet vaccination status, which was Oct. 8. McDonough said supervisors started the discipline process, which begins with counseling an employee who refuses the vaccine. Overall, about 70% of VA’s work force has documented their vaccination status. He said the most important goal is to keep Veterans safe.
“Any time any Vet walks into any VA facility or any time any VA employee appears in a Veteran’s home, that Veteran needs to know that we have done everything in our power to keep them safe,” he said.
Watch the entire press conference