The Department of Veterans Affairs, which has received $17 billion from the recently passed COVID relief bill, will use most of it to improve healthcare priorities to benefit the more than 9 million enrolled veterans in the department's care, including addressing backlogs in cases that mounted during the pandemic, Secretary Denis McDonough said Thursday.
"The lion's share of that will be going to healthcare priorities, about $14.5 billion," McDonough told CNBC's "Morning Joe." "That will allow us to ensure that more than 9 million enrolled veterans in our care have access to the kind of care that they've come to expect, the excellent care they've come to expect from the VA."
The money will allow the VA to meet medical needs that may have been postponed over the past year, he said.
"Upwards of 20 million appointments had to be changed or delayed, and then, of course, we see across the healthcare system, people have themselves chosen to not go in to get routine checkups and things like that," McDonough said. "This additional assistance will allow us to make sure that we cannot only meet the needs today but also meet the needs that may have been postponed over the course of the last year because of the pandemic."
In years past, the VA was experiencing major backlogs, particularly with medical claims and concerns. McDonough agreed that with the pandemic, there is still a backlog.
However, he said money from the COVID bill will help with that.
"First is a delay in some kinds of exams that are required for our vets to get access to the care or resources or benefits that they need," he said. "This new law gives us $700 million to make sure we bring that backlog down. That's the first thing. That's a backlog from the pandemic on certain kinds of exams."
There is also a backlog on benefits claims, which grew to "somewhere around 210,000 cases," McDonough said.
"This is because personnel were not able to go into offices, for example, personnel from supporting agencies that help us get documentation to prove cases," McDonough said. "We've got about $250 million in this bill to also bring that backlog down. So, those are two important investments in this bill that will allow us to bring the backlogs down."
The money will allow facilities to receive upgrades that have been shown to be needed during the COVID-19 pandemic, McDonough added.
"Obviously, with a pandemic like this, we needed to upgrade our facilities to the zero pressure rooms, improving HVAC systems," McDonough said.
Meanwhile, the VA is seeing "remarkable uptake" on COVID-19 vaccinations and "continued innovation" at facilities nationwide, McDonough said.
"These stories of the past, the crises of the past are exactly that," he said. "We're going to stay on top of these issues moving forward, especially with this new funding from the president."
The nation's veterans are also facing other serious issues, including suicides and homelessness, and McDonough said he's approaching his new position of managing a massive agency consisting of some 380,000 personnel scattered across the country as a "demanding management challenge."
"The first thing I'm doing is getting to know people," he said. "That's a little bit difficult, obviously, given the pandemic. We can't be traveling as much as we might otherwise want to be. But we've gotten out to the Veterans' Medical Center here in Washington, D.C., with the president, along with the vice president. Their presence helps underscore to the agency that this is a major priority of the White House."
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