Building larger operating rooms and testing veterans’ DNA to enhance treatment options are just some of the things the Secretary of Veterans Affairs is focused on, he told NBC 7 this week.
Robert McDonald, in San Diego for the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, joined 140 veterans from across the country as they competed in adaptive sports.
A kayaking event at the Mission Bay Yacht Club Tuesday was one of several put together by 300 volunteers including VA employees.
The VA recently announced $8 million in grants for programs that enable injured veterans to learn and compete in everything from flag football to sled hockey.
Some of the local agencies benefiting from the Adaptive Sport Grants to Aid Disabled Veterans are San Diego-based Challenged Athletes Foundation and Camp Pendleton’s Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
During his visit, McDonald sat down with NBC7 to talk about how the agency is preparing to serve the wave of veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We are talking about 250,000 service members leaving active-duty every year and we’ve got to get ready for that,” McDonald said.
Building infrastructure is one of the biggest needs. McDonald says 60 percent of the medical buildings within the agency are over 50 years old.
Because of new technology and surgical equipment, an operating room today needs to be 50 percent larger than it did even five years ago.
Also, McDonald said the VA has hired more than 1,200 doctors and hired over 3,000 nurses – training more doctors than any other health organization.
But overall the most important thing the VA can do is improve customer care.
Veterans also have the option of going outside the VA through the Choice Program.
“If all I achieve is to get VA refocused on its customer, the veteran, and improve customer service for me that's a big win. The other big win is making sure the American public understands the value of the VA, not just to veterans, but to American medicine and to the American public,” said McDonald.
The agency faces a serious challenge in handling older vets. There nearly 10 million veterans who served in Vietnam who are turning to the VA for care. Many are aging and have chronic health issues that need more care.
“When I came onto the VA one of the first things I did was to do an analysis of what created the crisis in 2014. Most Americans would think it was fighting a war for over a decade Afghanistan and Iraq the reality is it was the aging of the Vietnam era veteran,” said McDonald.
The VA must also adapt to the changing needs of veterans especially in the area of mental health. Treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder are a priority and the VA is working with some unexpected partners, the NFL and the NHL as well as leading universities.
The VA is also getting away from medications only as a way to treat PTSD, McDonald said. “The VA is using all kinds of treatments in order to avoid the need to give somebody opioids so for example: we're doing acupuncture, yoga, equine therapy all kinds of things to just avoid the need to have that person live life on drugs.”
And finally work in genetics is incredibly important at the VA. The Million Vet Project is a blood-bank from veterans who have given permission for research to map the samples and cross-reference with 40 years of medical records. Researchers will look for biological markers that suggest a person may be better off with a certain drug therapy or with alternative therapy for posttraumatic stress.
“This is all very exciting,” said McDonald.
Exciting and rewarding just like the time Secretary McDonald spent in the water on a surf board with some of the veterans at the sports clinic.
“I get inspired every time I come I'm inspired by the veterans who are in the water with me a few minutes ago surfing. Some who have catastrophic wounds from combat, legs, arms are up on the surf board doing the best they can.”