Verna L. Jones, the Maryland woman who started this month as new executive director of the American Legion office in Washington, assumes the job as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs tries to work through the management problems that have been blamed for long waits for health care and benefits claims.
Jones, an attorney and Army veteran who lives in Prince George's County, is the Legion's liaison to the White House and oversees its relations with the federal government at all levels, including the VA.
She has served as the Legion's director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation, manager of Legion operations at the Appeals and Special Claims Unit at the VA's Board of Veterans' Appeals, and service officer for the American Legion Department of North Carolina.
The American Legion, founded in 1919, has 2.4 million members in more than 14,000 local posts.
During her first week in the new job, Jones described what she sees as the Legion's role in the VA's reform efforts.
Congratulations on the post. What are your priorities for the Legion over the next few years?
It is a very proud moment. Since I got out of the service in 1995, I have been working with veterans. I knew it was something I wanted to do. Obviously, we need to continue to work with the VA to improve access to care for veterans and do whatever we can to reduce the backlog and improve the accuracy of claims.
Will Tuesday's election results and the Republican takeover in Congress affect the continuity and connections the Legion and other advocates had established with elected representatives no longer in office?
I don't think so. Of course when there's new people coming in, you'll have some readjustment. But there's probably not a person in our country that doesn't understand that there are many issues going on in the VA. The scandals exposed that there's a problem, and our veterans need to be served better. There might be some people who may not be as intricately knowledgeable about the issues, but they'll catch up and it won't affect the issues much.
After veterans were found to have been waiting for medical appointments for so long in Phoenix that many died, federal officials allowed some veterans to seek private care. Do you know how that will work and whether that option is available yet?
The VA just issued "Choice Cards," which is sort of like an insurance card. They allow anyone who lives 40 miles or more from a VA facility or who has waited a month or longer for medical care from a VA clinic to go to a private doctor. The cards were supposed to go out earlier, but there was a delay, and 330,000 were released on Wednesday. All 9 million of the cards should be mailed out soon.
[Jones' office provided more detailed information after the interview: About 300,000 Choice Cards were mailed to veterans who live 40 miles from a VA medical facility. Another 370,000 are to be mailed this month to veterans who have waited more than a month for medical care. The remaining 8 million veterans who have enrolled in the program will get cards later. Those veterans will be able to use the cards if they move more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or find themselves waiting more than 30 days for a medical appointment.]
In June, auditors found that veterans in Maryland had some of the nation's longest waits for medical care — an average of 80 days to see a primary-care doctor for an initial visit. Do you know how much wait times have fallen?
It varies at different places. But we set up "crisis command centers" across the country this summer, including one in Baltimore, where we said, "Let's get all these veterans in the system, get them an appointment and get past this scandal." [The command centers were staffed by American Legion staff and volunteers, VA staff and American Red Cross volunteers].
Within 120 days, we saw nearly 3,000 veterans and recovered at least $1 million in back pay at 11 crisis command centers nationwide as well as at a veterans outreach center in D.C.
At an American Legion forum this summer, Baltimore-area veterans said they were pleased with the care given at the Loch Raven VA Outpatient Clinic but had complaints about the Baltimore VA Medical Center downtown. What were those issues, and have they been resolved?
The issues were access to care. They had long wait times and issues of getting mental health appointments. It seems the amount of veterans who needed mental health care was greater than the number of medical health care professionals to serve them. We're still waiting to get information on whether those wait times have improved. This is where the Choice Cards come in. Now these veterans who haven't been seen in 30 days can go outside the VA to get medical care.
How is the relationship between the American Legion and new U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, who was confirmed in July?
He's been here for 90 days, and we're very hopeful about what's going to happen. Our national commander met with him in September, and the national commander felt positive about Secretary McDonald. It's a little too soon to tell because it's only been 90 days and there's so much that still needs to be done. But we're hopeful things will get better, and we think they will.