The Veterans Affairs Department (VA) has one of the federal government’s most consequential missions – providing healthcare and other benefits to America’s military veterans. During an online townhall Thursday, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie explained how his agency is improving its customer experience (CX) for veterans.
Subsequently, CX is crucial during the VA’s interactions with veterans and their loved ones. The difference between good and bad service matters all the more when it impacts veterans and their loved ones.
Wilkie says that this distinction is not lost on his agency’s workforce as it constantly reassesses the quality of the services it provides veterans.
“This is not a time for business as usual,” he said. “Tell us what’s working and what’s not working. We’re committed to changing VA’s culture so that we’re delivering exceptional service to you, the customer, and your loved ones.”
Thursday’s townhall marked the second one the VA has conducted since the forum’s debut in September 2018. Wilkie noted during Thursday’s broadcast that such events are vital for refining CX at the VA.
“No matter what happens outside our walls, we must talk to each other,” he told listening employees. “I want you to talk to your fellow employees; I want you to talk to veterans. That way you can come to the table with a better customer experience for those you’ve chosen to serve.”
This mindset is already changing the VA’s services. For instance, a video aired Thursday explaining the agency’s welcome kits for new customers. The packages include clear and concise information for veterans on topics including mental health, education, finding jobs and even buying a home. According to the video, the kits’ format is critical now that half of veterans are under 65 years old for the first time since 1975.
Wilkie also praised the VA’s White House hotline for veterans, which runs over email and phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week since launching in 2018.
“When you talk, we listen,” he said, noting that the hotline has fielded over 175,000 messages since its debut. “The VA wants to be an integrated part of your activities and your issues, especially mental health.”
The problem of suicide, for example, illustrates how the VA is evolving to better serve veterans. Nearly 45,000 people die from suicide annually, according to a video Thursday, including 6,000 of whom are veterans.
The VA is tackling this challenge, however, with a flood of new programs aimed at preventing suicide. The agency’s welcome kits, for example, now contain a primer on mental health and suicide awareness.
In 2018, meanwhile, the VA released the largest analysis of veteran suicide data available from 2005 to that year.
Finally, the agency is additionally working with local governments to combat the problem in those communities.
“Suicide is a national public health issue,” Wilkie said, adding that ending it among veterans is his priority. “You don’t need special training to support a veteran in your life. Your words can be just the thing that veterans need to hear.”
Wilkie said that replacing the VA’s “aging electronic health records system” is another major goal of his.
“When a new electronic healthcare record comes online, those days will be history,” he said of eliminating the VA’s paper records. “We’re creating a holistic record that begins the day an American enters the service.”
VA has repeatedly faced criticism in recent years for slow wait times that sometimes resulted in inconvenience, health complications or even death for some veterans.
Wilkie vowed Thursday, however, that VA remains committed to better serving veterans by continuously updating its CX for their needs.
“This is not your granddaddy’s VA anymore,” he said, referencing the growing number of female veterans as one example of changes. “We’re providing things like maternity service and mammograms. We’re looking to the health of our American fighting women and changing the face of the VA.”
Wilkie’s remarks came as the partial shutdown of the federal government drags on towards its fourth week. Although VA remains open, he praised the agency’s workforce for staying focused on their mission during the standoff. Roughly 25 percent of the government is closed as President Trump and Democratic leaders in Congress spar over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I’m here as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to say that I support our federal workers at the department,” he said. “You have the most noble mission in government. You care for those who have been in battle. It’s my job to ensure that the rest of the country knows that.”