Dr. Linda Schwartz was a long-time Commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Veterans Affairs. Six months ago, she left to begin a new career at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after being confirmed last fall as Assistant Secretary for the VA's Office of Policy and Planning.
Schwartz told WNPR she came to the agency at the right time. "This is a very exciting time to be at VA," she said. "There's a lot of hope and promise for change."
One of the VA's priorities in recent years is tackling the amount of time it takes veterans to receive disability claims. Improving the process included getting the VA and Department of Defense to better communicate by sharing information on military members who were leaving the service to re-enter civilian life.
Schwartz said collaboration is improving. She cited a VA-DOD committee that she now co-chairs. "I can bring some of my experience as commissioner with some of the folks we have helped back in Connecticut, and bring that whole process into focus to many people who have never been past Washington, especially those higher ranking officers in the Department of Defense," she said.
Public opinion of the VA has suffered with recent scandals involving hidden wait times for health care, inappropriate staff behavior at some of the agency's facilities around the country, and how the agency handled serving veterans who are at risk of suicide or painkiller abuse. The most recent headline centers on allegations that a VA medical center in Wisconsin had been overprescribing narcotics. The VA and Congress are investigating.
Schwartz explained why many veterans are taking powerful painkillers. She said, "The issue with the opioids and the prescriptions is kind of a fallout from the war, a lot of our men and women coming home from being deployed have a lot of pain and disabilities that require pain medication." But Schwartz added the VA has been looking at alternative treatments for chronic pain.
The agency is also changing how it manages a veteran's case saying the goal is helping them with everyday stress before it reaches a crisis. "Stress is a very big contributor to the intensity to how one experiences pain," Schwartz said. She points to the Office of Veteran Engagement which is an initiative to improve how the VA helps veterans and their families.
"This comes from Secretary McDonald saying we are so busy doing the business of VA, we really need to have a group just dedicated to helping and navigating the system for veterans and their families," Schwartz said. "I have to say I was at a meeting with some of the veteran service organizations and they wonder, where's the big change? And I said, Excuse me, when was the last time you ever heard VA talk about customer service? It's a nuance. It's a long time coming."
The Air Force veteran has used the VA system herself since sustaining an injury during her service back in the 1980s. She said her own personal experiences paired with the feedback of Connecticut veterans over the years will continue to influence how she does her job in D.C.