Growing Number of Vets in the South Requires VA to Add Resources

Growing Number of Vets in the South Requires VA to Add Resources

The growing number of veterans in the southern region of the United States has compelled Denis McDonough, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), to reevaluate how it manages and expands its health care facilities across the country.

Mcdonough visited Texas' VA hospitals, cemeteries and veterans centers as part of a recent 23-state national tour. The first stop for him was the South Texas Veterans Health Care System in San Antonio, where patients have grown by 15% over the past two years, and the facility is now the fastest growing in the country, he said.

McDonough said veterans are moving to the South and West, particularly Texas, California, Arizona and Florida. The VA has begun to assess its resources to decide how to better allocate them to meet the demands in these locations.

A commission appointed by Congress will evaluate the report the VA is expected to make in January, and the commission will then make recommendations based on that report. Although McDonough said he expects pushback from Congress and communities whose resources are downsized or moved, it may require moving resources from one location to another to ensure veterans receive their benefits.

"It's a very real problem, but the thing that I think is most important for our veterans and our health care providers to know is that our commitment to our veterans is rock solid wherever you live," McDonough said. “It may be that the mode of care that we provide changes, but the fact of care and the fact of the presence will not.”

Additionally, he said there is a need to provide more options for female veterans who enroll at the VA at a rate nearly equal to that of men, at 44% and 49%, respectively.

Women in San Antonio make up 12% of the veteran population, versus the national average which is 9%, according to McDonough.

This is a foreshadowing of what we will see in the next 10 years, including a tripled number of veterans, which is why increasing access to gender-specific care is essential, McDonough said.

To encourage women to choose the VA, the agency has already added women's services coordinators at each facility. The agency is also looking into offering child care during appointments.

Only about 9 million veterans out of 19 million in the country receive health care from the VA.

Also facing increased demand is the Veterans Benefits Administration. McDonough has already hired 2,000 new workers to reduce the backlog of 260,000 claims. Claims backlogged for more than 120 days have yet to be assessed.

So far, about 900 VA employees have been hired. By the end of the spring, McConough predicted, all 2,000 new personnel will be trained, and rating claims and the backlog will be under 100,000 by 2024.

In part, the backlog grew because veterans diagnosed with hypothyroidism, Parkinson's-like symptoms, and bladder cancer are now eligible for benefits, McDonough said.

He is concerned about the timeline if the VA expands the types of illnesses related to toxic exposure.
When the military disposed of waste in open-air burn pits, toxic smoke was often blown around bases during conflicts of the past 30 years. Cancer, respiratory issues, and lung disease were blamed on the pits by veterans diagnosed in their early twenties. Despite their claims for benefits and health care, the VA has contended that there isn't enough evidence to support their claims.

The VA has added asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis to the list of conditions related to the exposure. Biden recently asked the VA to investigate several rare respiratory cancers and constrictive bronchiolitis as well.

The possibility of constructing a VA hospital in what is known as the Rio Grande Valley, south of San Antonio, is also being discussed, according to McDonough.

There is a top-to-bottom discussion going on right now about our facilities, how we can update our facilities, and where we might be overextending them. In every market in this country, we have discussed infrastructure, McDonough concluded.