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VA secretary hopes to improve access, outreach to veterans

By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 1, 2010

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki concedes that a full transformation to a user-friendly, fast-moving department is still years away, but he also insists that the focus and approach of VA workers has fundamentally changed in the last 18 months.

"Our primary focus has been access. We’ve wanted to outreach to all veterans who need us," Shinseki said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. "We know if we diagnose and treat [problems], people get better. If we don’t, there’s a good percentage of them who get worse."

Shinseki’s comments, before President Barack Obama’s remarks to the Disabled American Veterans Convention on Monday morning, come as the VA stares down a continuing wave of veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They enter a complex health and benefits system which boasts state-of-the-art record keeping for some programs but antiquated paper records in others.

Nearly 200,000 veterans have been waiting at least four months for benefits claims to be approved, a figure veterans groups have blasted as an embarrassment for the department.

Shinseki made trimming the backlog his top priority earlier this year but acknowledged that the problem will likely get worse in the coming year, as rules for claims on post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent-Orange-related illnesses were relaxed by department officials.

Obama on Monday is expected to address that problem but also some of the department’s lofty goals for coming years: ending homelessness among veterans by 2014, processing all claims within 125 days by 2015, creating lifelong health records which will follow individuals from their military career to the VA systems.

Shinseki said that last goal will be the key to many of the department’s existing headaches.

"Right now, our not having [lifelong electronic medical records] is the main reason for the backlog," he said. "It takes months of detective work going on, trying to establish the legitimacy of claims."

White House officials said the president will also address the wars overseas, focusing largely on the impact of the end of the combat mission in Iraq later this month.

Shinseki said one of the largest challenges for his agency in coming years will be engaging those young veterans well before they face serious health or financial problems.

"Most 20-year-olds have a lot on their mind, feel good about themselves after finishing a successful run in the military. They’re thinking about college and marriage and jobs," he said. "The last thing they want to do is go join the VA. So they put it off, and there are ramifications from that."

Funding for the VA jumped more than 15 percent last year and would see another sizable jump in funding under plans requested by the White House earlier this year. Since 2002, funding for the department has more than doubled.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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