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VA Secretary Discusses Challenges Facing The Department

Veterans Affairs secretary Denis McDonough. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE
Veterans Affairs secretary Denis McDonough. Photo: Matthew Peddie, WMFE

VA secretary Denis McDonough visited Orlando last week, touring the VA hospital and meeting with local officials, and speaking at a Pride event, where he announced the department of Veterans Affairs would offer gender confirmation surgery. 

It’s estimated about 4,000 veterans will be interested in the surgery, and McDonough said it will take about 2 years to develop the framework for the new policy to include confirmation surgeries. 

McDonough talked with WMFE's Matthew Peddie before his stop at the Pride event. He discussed his goal of getting more veterans vaccinated against COVID-19, how the department is addressing the need for front line medical staff, and what the VA is doing to prevent veteran suicide. 

About 2.8 million of the 9 million veterans who receive care from the VA are now vaccinated, and nearly 300,000 staff. McDonough wants to get that number up.

“My number one goal for this summer, going into the end of summer, I'd like to be able to assure our veteran service organizations and their annual conventions that we're now providing more services, and we're now providing more benefits than we were before the pandemic. A big part of our being able to do that is our employees getting vaccinated,” says McDonough. 

McDonough says that being able to vaccinate veterans in their own homes and one-on-one contact with veterans can help boost the vaccination rate. 

“What we are finding is that when our vets can talk to nurses and doctors to raise their questions, that's the fastest way to get those questions resolved and to get them back vaccinated.”

He says the pandemic has shown the VA team that keeping their workers’ self-care in mind is critical for staff retention. 

“We're working really hard to keep the excellent staff we have. Retention is a major priority of mine. I've been talking now with all the teammates here on the facility today to urge them to stay with us, to make sure that we're investing in their self care.” 

With an increased demand for healthcare workers at this time, the Orlando VA is recruiting doctors and nurses and other experts. McDonough says there's stiff competition for these same employees across the healthcare system, but he believes the VA has something that no one else can offer.  

“The principal reason they come here is, the mission is an unbelievable mission. To be able to invest in care for those who have cared for us, put everything on the line for us, is a mission unlike anything else in medicine, unlike anything else in public service. And that's the principal attribute, the principal recruiting value that we have.”

Another challenge facing McDonough is veteran suicide prevention

“Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive whole health set of interventions," he says.

"We are uniquely positioned to exercise each of those lines of effort in the VA system, and we're very proud of our work because what we do know from data is that veterans in our care do better.”

McDonough says reaching veterans who aren't yet enrolled in the VA will help them get the care they need. 

“We understand veterans, we understand the challenges veterans face, we understand- since so many of our personnel are veterans themselves- the challenges that veterans are going through. And so, we're going to make sure that we keep veterans in our care and that requires us, by the way, to ensure rigorous standards of excellence.”