The Secretary of Veterans Affairs, James Peake both an Army Lieutenant General and a cardiac surgeon spoke at the National Press Club on May 20, 2008 to discuss his priorities as Secretary. A few of the priorities include improving information technology, utilizing home telehealth, continuing partnerships and affiliations with academic learning centers and DOD, and helping veterans with mental health issues.
In discussing IT, the Secretary pointed out that although the VA’s current electronic medical record system is considered one of the best systems available, as he explained, the system is a multi-tiered old system. The VA has work to do in IT whether it is with financial systems, human resource systems, or in applying modern technology to the claims process.
There is a need to really make significant improvements in sharing information, not only from doctor to doctor, but sharing information with family members. Also, the Secretary stressed the need to migrate the electronic record system as this will offer a greater opportunity for DOD and the VA to work together. Presently, the VA is working with DOD representatives and has an Army officer on staff to provide the links to bring the agencies together.
Right now the VA has a separate appropriations line for IT. This means that for the first time, the VA is starting to figure out how much the agency is really spending on IT and how much it really takes to run an organization with the VA’s complexity and size.
As for telehealth, the VA now has 32,000 people using home telehealth. Recently the Secretary went to Salisbury, North Carolina and looked at home telehealth in action and noted how powerful it can be in treating patients, but also in helping patients have a comfortable relationship with their doctors and nurses.
The VA is trying to find ways to help the veteran population easily access care and not need to drive 500 miles to see a doctor. The VA is looking at a variety of models to provide better care for patients.
The Secretary thinks that an important strength for the VA is to have academic affiliations with some of the greatest medical facilities, universities, and academic centers in the world. According to the Secretary, these partnerships like any other business relationship may at times need to be restructured so that the VA, the veterans, and academic affiliates get what they need. These partnerships need to be expanded to be able to share more information and services.
When the Secretary was asked specifically about mental issues such as PTSD, TBI, and suicides, the Secretary told the audience that trying to understand how to deal with these issues in not something new. Last year, the VA saw some 400,000 people with PTSD in the VA system. Only about 57,000 of those veterans afflicted with mental issues were returning soldiers from Iraq.
In addition, Brigadier General Loree Sutton has the lead in DOD and will help move forward with PTSD, and TBI, and the VA has also provided a deputy to confer on these specific issues.
When questioned, the Secretary stressed that the VA greatly encourages veterans to seek psychiatric counseling for wartime mental health problems. To help the veterans deal with mental health problems, the VA has opened a call center to reach out. About 300,000 out of the 800,000, who have separated and have come to the VA for health care, have touched the call system one way or the other. And when they do, they are screened for PTSD and TBI, and asked about suicidal tendencies. As part of the program, the call center is reaching out to approximately 17,000 veterans who potentially could benefit from case management but may not be aware of it or have access.