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As veterans are honored, VA strives to serve better

Beneath the shade trees that flank the steps of Evans Town Hall, Donna P. Mallia extolled the role of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in supporting the men and women of each generation who fight, suffer and die for the nation.

“It is our duty to serve those who served others,” Mallia, director of the Veterans Affairs Buffalo Regional Office, said at Evans’ Memorial Day weekend ceremony Sunday.

But Mallia knows that the work of Veterans Affairs is under heavy scrutiny both locally and nationally, especially in light of negative reports earlier this year from the Office of Inspector General. The reports criticized wait times and other issues at the department’s Psychosocial Rehabilitation Recovery Center in Buffalo and calls-processing failures at the national suicide hotline, based in Canandaigua.

The problems prompted Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, to call for the firing of the VA’s medical director in Buffalo and to say he would request that the House Veterans Affairs Committee hold hearings on the suicide hotline failures.

But to those who worry about the future of the VA, Mallia focused on one word Sunday: transformation.

As a 26-year VA employee and spouse of a military veteran, Mallia said she already has seen many changes in the last year that renew her faith in the VA’s ability to evolve and improve.

“The reason I stay is because I believe in this mission,” she said.

Touting the vision of national VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald, Mallia recounted the VA’s 12 “breakthrough priorities” and stressed two of them – improving the veterans’ experience and improving the employees’ experience.

Improving the veterans’ experience means improving access and timeliness of services, she said.

“We need to be there when the veterans need us to be there,” she said.

She pointed to the recent addition of a claims benefits processor at the Buffalo VA Medical Center. That employee is located in the same space where exams are done so patients can sign up on the spot for new or expanded veterans benefits, receive seamless service, and offer feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

Local VA spokeswoman Evangeline E. Conley pointed out that the Buffalo VA also opened a newly renovated, $4 million, 10,000-square-foot inpatient psychiatric treatment unit earlier this month. The last several years have also seen expanded hospital and clinic hours and the opening of a Kids Corner at the medical center, which provides child care for youngsters while their family members receive treatment.

Meanwhile, McDonald has highlighted his goal of resolving a backlog of benefits appeals within a year and providing same-day service to veterans who need medical treatment. The VA also launched a simplified website last year, vets.gov, to make it easier for veterans to apply for disability and education benefits and employment resources, Mallia said.

In regard to criticisms made by the inspector general regarding local VA failures, Conley said every issue raised has either been resolved or is currently being addressed.

Vietnam War veteran Anthony LaRusso, chairman of the Town of Evans Veterans Committee and commander of Post 5798, Veterans of Foreign Wars, staunchly defended the work of local VA staff. “I’ve never had a problem,” he said.

LaRusso, who was exposed to the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, suffers from diabetes and is a 15-year patient in the system, he said. He appreciates the fact that the VA doesn’t require all patients to travel to Buffalo for service, but has clinics sprinkled throughout the area. He attends one in Dunkirk.

After checking in at the clinic kiosk, LaRusso said, he is seen within five minutes. He also likes the VA’s automated prescription-refill system, which delivers all his medication to his door in three days. “Those people are sharp,” he said.

Mallia, who primarily oversees local benefits administration, said that while more needs to be done, change is happening for the better.

“We’re not there yet,” she said, “but I think the progress we’ve made will really help us transform the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

email: stan@buffnews.com