To Improve, VA Must Acknowledge Vets Can Go Elsewhere

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin

Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin Charles Krupa/AP

Thinking of veterans as customers who could take their business elsewhere could fuel agency improvements, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin thinks the federal government should take cues from entrepreneurs and focus on what veterans need.

At the VA, he’d like to see the agency ensure it’s “solving one of the problems that our veterans are experiencing or one of the problems the VA [is] experiencing,” instead of providing services regardless of demand. On the NBC reality show "Shark Tank," business owners pitch products to a panel of celebrity judges and the ones whose products don’t gain traction aren’t solving relevant customers’ problems, Shulkin explained.

That's why the department is focusing on issues such as expediting the disability claims process, staffing shortages, preventing veteran suicides, and cleaning up the VA’s information technology problems, Shulkin said at an event Tuesday hosted by the VA Innovators Network, a set of laboratories dedicated to creatively solving internal problems at the department.

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The best way to address the VA’s shortfalls is to be “open and honest with the problems we have,” he said. Thinking of veterans as customers who have the option to go to elsewhere could provide an incentive for the VA to improve its services, he explained.

“Make them consumers [for whom] we have to have a product that they want,” he said. “We’re going to have to open up our system to be more competitive with the private sector.”

Other priorities include reducing the wait time for benefit claims to 30 days. The VA is working on technology that could eventually process veterans' disability claims instantly -- similar to what happens when they request a credit score, he said.

Broadly, the VA should focus on the services it provides more effectively than the private sector does, such as treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, prosthetics and rehabilitation, Shulkin said.

President Donald Trump’s newly established White House Office of American Innovation also counts improving VA technology among its initial projects. Earlier this summer Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and head of that office, said his team had advised the VA to use the same electronic health record system as the Pentagon already does. In June, VA announced its intent to sole-source the contract in three to six months.

The Obama administration struggled to tackle that same problem, attempting to build a database that would let personnel view records in two separate systems used by the Pentagon and the VA.