Friday, August 28, 2009

VA Sec. Shinseki on Gulf War illness, Agent Orange: "We Will Get This Right"

Written by Anthony Hardie, 91outcomes

( - Friday, August 28, 2009) -- In a series of major policy announcements during the annual August round of veterans' service organization national conventions, newly appointed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki publicly recognized the plight of veterans afflicted by Gulf War illness and Agent Orange, and pledged that the VA under his leadership will, "get this right."

In key speeches before the Association of the United States Army (AUSA), American Veterans (AMVETS), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Blinded Veterans Association (BVA), and the American Legion (LEGION), Shinseki has repeatedly noted the serious problems affecting these veterans, decades after their military service, stating, "We must do better, and we will."

Shinseki was candid in his assessment of the challenges the new Administration faces in leading the VA, attributing problems to "someone cutting corners;" "failures in leadership, behavior and professional ethics;" and "systemic" issues.

"These issues will only be resolved when a sense of responsibility, accountability, and discipline is established throughout VA—from my office to the farthest reaches of our footprint," said Shinseki. "We are your advocates, and we have begun to retrain the workforce."

Gulf War illness issues -- which have long lingered unaddressed -- have been carefully noted by the new Administration, including through meetings with key Gulf War illness advocates and members of the White House Transition Team shortly after the election, correspondence by key veterans advocates and organizations, an ongoing series of Congressional oversight hearings into the impact of VA's previously limited scope of Gulf War illness research not focused on treatments or improving lives this summer, and a July high-level meeting between an array of top VA officials and several members of the Research Advisory Committee (RAC) on Gulf War Veterans' Illnesses.

The full relevant text from Secretary Shinseki's speech before the American Legion is as follows:

Five years from now, we intend to be the provider of choice for more of that larger population of 23.4 million Veterans—in insurance, in healthcare, in education, in home loans, in counseling, and in employment.

To achieve this kind of status with Veterans, we must make it easier for them to understand their entitlements and then make it much simpler for them to access their benefits and health care services.

Beyond the five years, we’re looking for new ways of thinking and acting. We are asking why, 40 years after Agent Orange was last used in Vietnam, this Secretary is still adjudicating claims for service-connected disabilities related to it. And why 20 years after Desert Storm, we are still debating the debilitating effects of whatever causes Gulf War illness. Left to our present processes, 20 or 40 years from now, some future secretary could be adjudicating service-connected disabilities from our ongoing conflicts. We must do better, and we will.

If you haven’t already heard, the Institute of Medicine recently released a new study on a possible link between Agent Orange and heart disease and Parkinson’s. We have this study under review now, and I assure you—we will get this right.

Any organization our size is bound to have occasional disappointments, and we have not been spared them in recent months. Many of these issues occurred in the past, but I take full responsibility for fixing them. Some of these disappointments resulted from someone cutting corners, while others were failures in leadership, behavior and professional ethics. And still others were systemic.

These issues will only be resolved when a sense of responsibility, accountability, and discipline is established throughout VA—from my office to the farthest reaches of our footprint. We are your advocates, and we have begun to retrain the workforce.

My remarks this morning comprise a seven-month progress report on the state of your Department of Veterans Affairs. I intend to do this again next year. Much more remains to be done. We need your continued support and assistance if we are to become the provider of choice.

My mission is to serve Veterans by increasing their access to our benefits and services, to provide them the highest quality of health care available, and to control costs to the best of my abilities. Doing so will make VA a model of good governance. Doing so will also keep faith with President Lincoln’s charge to care for those who have borne the battle and grant them the dignity and respect they deserve until they are laid to rest. That is my mission.

We look for your advice and support in all of these endeavors.

Change is coming...

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