75 Years Later, the Veterans Health Administration Remains Focused on Service

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Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center
The Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., is seen on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Dr. Stone, a U.S. Army veteran, is the Veterans Health Administration's executive in charge, overseeing the delivery of care to more than nine million enrolled veterans in the country's largest integrated health care system.

The feeling I get when I walk into any Department of Veterans Affairs facility really captures the heart of our mission for me. Lives are being saved, medical advances are being made, prevention advice is leading to longer and healthier lives, and veterans like myself are surrounded by others who put the nation before themselves.

I can speak from personal experience that military service is hard on the body. The nation expects our military forces to be ready for anything, so we trained and fought hard, on land, in the air, and at sea.

The Veterans Health Administration, or VHA, is where the unwavering dedication of our nation's veterans is fully matched by the gratitude and commitment of caring staff and where the cost of defending our freedoms meets the personal, human approach inherent in health care delivery.

This week marks a tremendous milestone: 75 years ago, the United States created what would become the Veterans Health Administration, a network of publicly funded hospitals and clinics to provide lifelong, specialized health care for the men and women who served in uniform.

There had been facilities for direct care to veterans since 1834 but, at the conclusion of World War II, the influx of almost 16 million new veterans showed the need to focus on their long-term health and to conduct research into the conditions that result from military service.

We divide our efforts into four missions:

1. Provide the Best Care for Veterans

The VHA takes a holistic approach to veteran health, providing not only medical care, but programs and services that support vets as they transition from active service and throughout the rest of their lives. VA medical centers, clinics, Vet Centers and other facilities provide more than health care -- they provide a sense of community and connection. About one-third of VHA employees are veterans themselves, and our patients know that their providers understand and are familiar with the conditions veterans face.

2. Conduct Research

The VHA is, and has been, at the forefront of health care innovation, contributing to the body of medical knowledge. It performed the first successful liver transplant, demonstrated the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, invented the nicotine patch, and developed Hepatitis C medication that has effectively eradicated the disease in the veteran population. We currently have more than 7,000 active research projects and are home to the largest brain bank and the largest DNA repository in the nation.

3. Support Education

Our work would not be possible without our long-standing academic affiliate partners. The VHA works with universities, other federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and private industry to enhance our impact. We partner with virtually every medical school in the nation, and almost 70 percent of America's health care providers receive medical training at a VHA facility. The skills they build at the VHA can be seen in hospitals and clinics across the country.

4. Provide Emergency Response

Our fourth mission of emergency response for the nation came to the forefront this year. While we have responded to acute emergencies such as hurricanes for years, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the VHA has provided a sustained nationwide response. Since March, VHA staff have volunteered in 118 Federal Emergency Management Agency missions in 47 states, the District of Columbia, and Native American communities.

We have tested more than 1.1 million people for COVID-19 and cared for over 100,000 veterans and civilians diagnosed with the virus. We have now begun vaccinating nearly 200,000 employees and veterans.

Despite all this, we never stopped providing safe veteran care. We are the nation's leader in telehealth technology, and these visits have increased more than 1,700% during the pandemic.

I am immensely proud of the VHA's long history, as well as every one of its employees. Our facilities are places of both health care and camaraderie, and it is not uncommon for long lost battle buddies to unexpectedly reunite in our lobbies or waiting rooms. Special moments like these make the VHA a health care system unlike any other, fulfilling the nation's commitment to honor those who have served our nation.

As we celebrate 75 years of service, I am grateful to my predecessors and all of my colleagues for their tireless work. It is a privilege and honor to serve those who served.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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