VA Secretary David Shulkin

Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin outlined before Congress his plans to use President Trump’s $78.9 billion funding request for 2018 to improve services the beleaguered agency provides to veterans. While recognizing that VA has made significant advances in delivering benefits to veterans, Shulkin said that more must be done.

“Incremental change is not sufficient to achieve the additional improvements VA and veterans need and demand,” Shulkin told members of the House Appropriations military construction, veterans’ affairs and related agencies subcommittee during a May 3 hearing.

Shulkin outlined five priorities:

* Offering veterans more choice for care. He cited the Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek health care from facilities closer to their homes or more amenable to granting quick appointments. He cited President Trump’s decision to sign a bill extending the program for another year. It was set to expire in August.

* Taking steps to help veterans become better informed about benefits available to them, including wait times and quality of care they should expect from VA facilities. Shulkin mentioned the new Access and Quality Tool, which would help veterans compare the quality of VA medical centers to each other, and civilian facilities as well.

* Modernization of infrastructure, including facilities and systems. “Today, VHA [the Veterans Health Administration], the Veterans Benefits Administration [VBA}, and the Department of defense share ore medical information than any public or private health care organization in the country,” Shulkin told the panel. He said more comparable improvements are in the works.

* Enhancing areas where VA now provides its best services. “Do deliver the full care spectrum as defined in VA’s medical benefits package, VA will focus on its foundational services — those areas in which it can excel — and build community partnerships for complementary services,” Shulkin told the panel. He said the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) will bury roughly 133,600 veterans next year, and take care of more than 3.7 grave sites across 9,400 acres. Also, VA plans to invest in the cemetery system’s infrastructure, so that existing cemeteries can remain open while more are being built.

* Taking steps to reduce bureaucratic walls among VA, the Defense Department, and other federal agencies. Shulkin also wants to hold VA employees more accountable for poor performance or misconduct, and reward good performers.  He wants to make it easier to punish, fire, or recoup bonuses those who fall short of the goals he set, and pay salaries to his best employees that would compare favorably to those offered by the private sector or other federal agencies.