Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In Changing the Culture at VA, a Top VA Official Leads from the Front

Next Gulf War Task Force Report, personally led by VA Sec. Shinseki’s Chief of Staff, is expected in August

Gulf War veteran and VA Chief of Staff John Gingrich

Written by Anthony Hardie

(91outcomes.com) - John Gingrich, a unit commander during the 1991 Gulf War, knows what Gulf War veterans suffering from Gulf War illnesses have been through because he knows them personally.

Showing his true colors during a public meeting today of the Congressionally chartered VA Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Veterans’ Illnesses at the VA’s headquarters in Washington, DC, Gingrich spoke directly to Gulf War veterans in the room. 

“I’m committed to this issue both professionally and personally,” said Gingrich. Professionally, as he is leading the effort to drastically change how VA does nearly everything related to Gulf War veterans, and “personally, because I know people who served in the Gulf War, about 800 when you add up everyone who was attached to us,” he said.

Now the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Gingrich, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, serves directly under VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has publicly pledged to Gulf War veterans that he will “get this right,” with Gingrich leading the charge.

One of the veterans in the room was Jim Bunker, a former Army officer from Kansas who served under Gingrich during the 1991 Gulf War who is now the president of the National Gulf War Resource Center, gave Gingrich some advice. “Currently, the Social Security Administration allows for total disability for fibromyalgia alone,” advised Bunker, who is now totally disabled and one of the 250,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War suffering from chronic multisymptom illness, more commonly known as Gulf War Illness or Gulf War Syndrome.

And Gingrich listened to the scientists and veterans, taking notes and directing various staff members in the room to take immediate action.

Gingrich provided the advisory body and veterans in attendance with an update on the pending final report of the VA’s internal Gulf War Task Force, an ambitious effort led personally by Gingrich to restructure and revise nearly everything in the vast agency related to veterans of the 1991 Gulf War.

While the occasionally self-deprecating leader confessed, “We didn’t do the outreach as well, and learned a lot of lessons on how to do it next time,” there was excellent response to the VA’s initial outreach efforts on the report with 150 formal comments, 28 written responses, 300 comments through the special VA website set up to receive comments on the report, and 2,100 votes racking and stacking those comments.

In fact, “this brought back probably the largest amount of public comment we have received on any proposal,” said Gingrich.

Even still, he said there were lessons learned and that VA would do more in the future to ensure even greater public awareness and opportunities for stakeholders to provide their input to VA decisions affecting them.

Shinseki appears to have picked an unusually adept leader who has realized that the only way to effect the necessary change is to lead it personally and by influencing a culture shift within the agency. Setting an example for his subordinates on all those comments, Gingrich said, “I have read every single one of them, and I’ve started on my second time reading through them.”

Later, Bunker said that he knows Gingrich well, and that when he says something like that, to believe it.

But Gingrich kept things realistic. “I don’t want to give the illusion that we’re going to be able to incorporate every single suggestion. I don’t want to start writing [the entire first report] over, but we will be adding notes that ‘we will be addressing this issue and this issue’.”

Gingrich’s assurances were well received, particularly when he candidly said, “It is a first report.”

“It’s about how we’re going to provide the care and services to the veterans, how do we fix it and provide that care and services. Do we have all the answers? No. Do we feel we are on the guidepost to get the answers? Yes,” said Gingrich.

Gingrich also addressed the report on Gulf War veterans’ health released in April by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academies of Science. “I’m glad that there was a public statement that undiagnosed illnesses are real, and are not in the mind,” just as ill Gulf War veterans have been saying for years.   The report stated definitively that the chronic multisymptom illness experienced by 250,000 veterans of the 1991 Gulf War could not be attributed to any known psychiatric illness.

Gingrich also laid out the VA’s ambitious efforts on veterans claims and Secretary Shinseki’s plans to eliminate the current claims backlog by 2015.

Gingrich explained that in addition to simply reducing wait times, there are clear reasons driving the changes. “First, it gets them into the medical system. Second, while their claims will be backdated, this will help them get money to them as quickly as possible,” he said.

One of the “28” efforts, described by Gingrich, was an initiative to extend the time between medical review exams for veterans with approved claims to five years, from the current two years, “which made 77,000 veterans not have to go through a physical this year,” said Gingrich.

Questions from the advisory members and the public appeared to be taken seriously by Gingrich, who is leading the culture change from the front.

"I’m really encouraged to hear what you’re doing, and your willingness to hear what we’re saying,” said Joel Graves, of Lacey, Wa., a Gulf War veteran with Gulf War illness who serves on the advisory committee. “I’m really pleased you’re working through all this.”

The final report of the Task Force Gingrich personally leads is expected in August.



ADDITIONAL INFO:  Full Biography, John Gingrich

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