VA Takes Center Stage at PVA Summit

PVA executive director Sherman Gillums Jr. speaks at the 2016 PVA + Summit in Orlando, Fla. Photo by Brittany Martin
Online Exclusive posted Thursday, September 1, 2016 - 8:08am

The Department of Veterans Affairs takes center stage at PVA Summit

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The second day of the 2016 Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Summit + Expo in Orlando, Fla., kicked off with an impassioned speech from PVA Executive Director Sherman Gillums Jr.

Gillums spoke candidly to the gathering of clinicians, researchers, social workers and others involved in the care of veterans and patients with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) prior to his introduction of Dr. David Shulkin, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) undersecretary of health.

“Privatizing VA is the opposite of choice. Instead of choice care, it should be called chance care, because that’s exactly what it’ll be,” Gillums said. “Fragmented, less coordinated, not veteran-centric, yet convenient. Convenient for a Congress that will pass the buck to the private sector and leave it to the free market to shape the course of health care for veterans instead of fixing the problems by adequately resourcing the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Gillums proceeded to, as he put it, “give a voice to the voiceless” by calling out the government’s lack of support for the people who care for the nation’s disabled veterans. Last year, spinal-cord injury nurses performed more than 105,000 hours of overtime due to turnover and understaffing because staffing models lag behind need by about 15 years, Gillums said.

“Patient need went up as staffing plateaued. Yet still, I get asked by senior VA leaders, ‘What about all the empty beds?’…Those of you in the field who touch patients and directly administer the care know the answer. Empty beds at spinal-cord injury centers are not due to a lack of demand. Empty beds are due to a lack of staff to operate those beds,” Gillums said to thunderous applause.

Dr. David Shulkin, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) undersecretary of health. Photo by Brittany Martin.

Gillums said staffing issues are part of the reason some disabled veterans reach out to the private sector for specialized care, despite the advantages of receiving comprehensive annual exams at a VA SCI center.

To bring stability to the system, Gillums said Shulkin must find a permanent director of SCI who would set the highest standards of care and advocate for better resources, “more bedside providers and fewer bean counters and paper pushers.”

“The famous quote, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us’ about sums up the foibles of VHA leadership for far too long, from central office to the executive suites in each of your facilities…it starts with self-aware, compassionate leadership at every level,” Gillums said. “It’s not your job to think about where the resources will come from. It’s your duty to demand them for the sake of your patients and let your leadership in Congress figure out how to get there. That’s what they’re paid to do. Stop making their job so easy.”

When Shulkin took the stage, he thanked Gillums for his candor, saying it’s PVA’s brand of advocacy that makes the organization a great partner for the VA in terms of giving veterans the best health care possible.

"Though partners don’t always agree,” Shulkin said.

Shulkin enumerated 25 reasons the Veterans Health Administration is so unique, most notably the VA:

  • Has the opportunity to eliminate Hepatitis C from the veteran population in the next two years
  • Spurred a 22% reduction in opioid use in the veteran population
  • Is introducing a research tool to use predictive analytics for veteran suicide, to be implemented in medical centers, before an event occurs
  • Is implementing same-day access for primary care and mental health at any VA medical center by the end of the year
  • Spends $1 billion per year on telehealth
  • Is the world's 12th-leading contributor to innovative research, most recently a mobile application for hearing aids, as well as work conducted at the Salt Lake City VA on osteo-integration, where prosthesis is inserted into the patient’s bone to give a better feel and better rehabilitation experience
  • Provided mobile counseling services following recent mass shootings, floods and other emergencies as part of the VA’s emergency preparedness priority
  • Has formed hundreds of partnerships with outside institutions and companies, both nonprofit and for-profit, including Google.

With a vast majority of summit attendees being employed by the VA, Shulkin admitted he was “preaching to the choir” when PVA National Secretary Larry Dodson asked how Shulkin would get Congress to fund the needed changes in the VA.

“Look, the choir’s pretty important,” Shulkin said. “All of you are the ambassadors to the VA … people are likely to ask you, ‘So the stuff we hear, the stuff in the newspapers, is that really what’s going on?’ And you need to be educated and you need to know about the things we’re doing. We are not a perfect system … but we are committed to getting better, to doing more, so it’s important that we get the accurate information out there.

“When Congress gives us the opportunity, we are not squeamish about telling Congress what the truth is and asking for the resources we need to do this. It is a challenge to get things through Congress right now, all of you know this, but we are continuing to advocate and really push.”


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VA Takes Center Stage at PVA Summit


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