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December News From MOAA National

Dateline: 12/6/2018

VA Secretary Hints At More Changes Coming In Early 2019

Since his swearing-in ceremony on July 30, Veterans Affairs Secretary, Robert Wilkie has demonstrated his leadership style by getting out and about - continuously. From visiting the VA Medical Centers, to attending the Military Family Summit, Wilkie is making sure he is visible and hears all voices in VA. Last month, Wilkie attended a VA Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs meeting with veteran service organizations, including MOAA, where legislative priorities were shared.

Wilkie reflected on his first months as secretary and the progress that has been made thus far. He also hinted at upcoming changes. Wilkie's overarching commentary focused on the fact that VA is an enormous organization and that changes must be made in phases.  These changes would then only be implemented after Wilkie is convinced that the outcomes to veterans will be free of glitches, errors, and problems. Towards that goal, VA's new Electronic Health Record is being tested in Washington and Alaska to work out any glitches before it goes nationwide.

Wilkie made clear VA must undergo what he termed “business transformations” in order to better serve veterans. One example he provided is improving supply chains to VA Medical Centers. In 2017, VA made 4 million purchases using credit cards for items such as medical supplies. Wilkie has started reviewing DoD supply practices to determine if there is a more efficient system.

During the October meeting with Wilkie, MOAA representatives took the opportunity to stress the importance of VA and DoD collaboration in addressing matters of toxic exposures to current conflict veterans, specifically when it comes to their healthcare and benefits.

Electronic Health Records should alleviate challenges servicemembers face in proving toxic exposures. As documented by MOAA in previous articles, Blue Water Navy Veterans from Vietnam have struggled to prove their exposure to Agent Orange. With the EHRs, a servicemember's records could easily transition as he or she leaves service.

Wilkie expressed a desire to make Vet Centers, which offer counseling and referral services for combat veterans, more robust. He also wishes to “widen” the Veterans Choice Program, which enables veterans to receive care from a community provider instead of the VA (provided they have VA authorization).

Hinting at more transformations to come, Wilkie said that he is working with the President and more changes will be announced in January at the next State of the Union address. One issue that might be addressed by the President is access standards for VA and DoD being shortened to seven days for primary care appointments. MOAA will remain engaged with VA and its continued efforts towards transformation. 


MOAA-Backed Study Shows Health Risks Remain for Those Who’ve Served


A MOAA backed study in generous partnership with the United Health Foundation on the health of those who've served shows they are more likely to report their health as “good” or “excellent,” than their civilian counterparts but they're also more likely to suffer from a litany of chronic diseases and to engage in unhealthy behaviors.

The America's Health Rankings Health of Those Who Have Served Report compiled responses from more than 1 million participants from 2015-2016.


Some of the findings:  

·       Those who've served are more likely to have cancer (10.9 percent, compared with 9.8 percent of civilians), cardiovascular disease (9.8 percent to 7.2 percent), and arthritis (24.7 percent to 22.8 percent) than their civilian counterparts.

·       Those who've been in uniform have higher rates of excessive drinking (21.4 percent, compared with 18.6 percent of civilians), smoking (19.9 percent to 16.6 percent) and insufficient sleep (42.5 percent to 34.6 percent) than civilians, as well as more than double the rate of smokeless tobacco use (8.7 percent to 3.5 percent).

·       Despite the above, 56.3 percent of those who've served reported being in good or excellent health, compared with 51.1 percent of those who didn't serve.

Those who've served also show a tendency to engage in preventative health care services at a greater rate than their civilian counterparts, with more of them visiting the dentist (69.6 percent, compared with 65.2 percent of civilians), getting a flu vaccine (50.6 percent to 37.0 percent), and undergoing a colorectal cancer screening (72.4 percent to 66.0 percent).

The report compared its survey findings with a similar survey from 2011-2012. Those comparisons showed some improvements in key health areas among those who've served: Declines in drinking and smoking, for instance, and greater access to health insurance.

It also showed some troubling trends, particularly among women who've served - their rates of suicidal thoughts more than tripled, for example, from 1.8 percent in 2011-12 to 7 percent in 2015-16. The rate of depression rose 9 percent (15 percent to 16.4 percent) among all survey-takers who have served, and rose 32 percent among those ages 26 to 34 (14.8 percent to 19.5 percent).

These and other mental health findings from the report “are concerning,” said Kathy Beasley, USN (Ret), director of MOAA's government relations health affairs. “We will continue to highlight these and others to officials in both the DoD and the VA and with Congressional policymakers on the committees and in testimony.”

MOAA has partnered with the United Health Foundation for nearly four years, Beasley said, with the goal of determining how the unique demands of military service may affect long-term health “so that research and public policy can be directed toward understanding and improving these factors and conditions.”

A key MOAA goal is to strengthen DoD and VA collaboration and services to support wounded warriors and an expanding population of women veterans. This study demonstrates the need for MOAA's continued advocacy and provides key indicators for lawmakers and the government to use in implementing needed changes and improvements.

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