A streamlined veterans benefits appeals process, expanded access to private care programs and a simplified website are all now officially the goals of the Department of Veterans Affairs within the next 11 months, as stated by VA Secretary Bob McDonald at a Senate hearing on Thursday, Jan. 21.
According to the Military Times, McDonald announced his agency's 2016 ambitions at a hearing that he requested so as to inform the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee of how the corporate-inspired reforms of the VA are progressing after their launch more than one year ago.
"Our goal is to be the No. 1 customer service agency in government," McDonald told the committee. "We know we have a lot to do to get there."
So far, many of the moves made by McDonald have been internal and therefore out of the public eye, with little tangible effect on veterans themselves. The secretary has promised that pending changes will amount to significant improvements in how the VA interacts with and cares for veterans.
Doubt remains, however, as the VA seems to take two steps back for every one step forward. The first-time claims backlog, for example, has fallen by more than 400,000 cases in the last few years, but pending benefits appeals cases have grown by 400,000 in the same time period.
Controversies over ineptitude and even corruption within the VA led Congress members on Thursday to question whether or not enough high-level employees had been demoted amidst scandals, The Associated Press reported. McDonald's response was swift.
"You can't fire your way to excellence," he said.
Instead of casting blame, the secretary pointed to the availability of health care options his department aims to offer in the coming months.
"Our objective is that by the end of 2016, a veteran can go wherever they want (for health care) and it will be paid for," McDonald said, according to the Military Times.
Some lawmakers remained skeptical, but McDonald hopes to prove them wrong.