On February 16, 2022, VA Secretary Denis McDonough held his monthly press conference at the VA Central Office in Washington, DC, which was broadcast live to reporters and VA employees. The event covered updates on how VA is handling the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, VBA’s progress on the backlog of claims, NCA’s handling of uninterrupted memorial services, VHA’s mission to keep appointments and timely care clearances; and the secretary’s work with Congress to invest in VA employees.
The Secretary opened the event by noting VA’s primary responsibilities: providing veterans with timely access to world-class care and earned benefits. But to cut straight to the nitty-gritty, he first addressed the issue that worries many vets – the backlog of claims.
“VBA employees processed more than 7,000 Veterans Benefits applications per day for 18 consecutive business days and counting, the longest such streak in VA history,” he said. .
What does this mean for veterans?
The backlog of claims increased in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to the latest Monday Morning Workload Report, released every Monday since 2004, the number of disability and pension claims in waiting for more than 125 days has stabilized.
“This means that tens of thousands of veterans are now receiving the benefits they have earned and rightfully deserve,” the secretary said.
However, the pandemic has not only affected VBA’s resilient workforce.
“NCA employees also fought through January, ensuring there was no disruption to memorial services for veterans, their families and survivors – despite nearly 200 NCA employees (approximately 10% of NCA’s total workforce) may be absent at one time or another due to COVID,” McDonough said.
And at VHA, employees made nearly three million in-person healthcare appointments in January. That’s 11% more than in January 2021, the secretary noted. Additionally, VHA conducted 827,000 telehealth appointments and provided 543,000 community care clearances, 20% more than January 2021.
“It’s the kind of amazing work VA employees do for vets every day, every week, every month of the year,” he said. “That’s why I always say these employees are the number one asset of the VA” and why “I’m asking Congress…to invest in this work – in their pay, their bonuses, their growth and development.”
Underscoring this need, the Secretary noted VA’s desire to remain competitive with private practice compensation: VA’s current nursing turnover rate is higher than at any point in the past 15 years. The secretary also pushed for Congress to pass a 2022 budget, not a rolling one-year resolution. With a full year’s budget, VA can continue to hire claims processors to continue its backlog reduction initiative, fund cemetery expansion, and close the “billion dollar shortfall” in community care funding.
For the full event, including Q&As on Caregiver Legislation, Community Care, VASRD updates and Fireplace Legislation, see the video embedded below: