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Jon Runyan: National Salute to Veteran Patients Week is opportunity for gratitude, reminder of our obligations

Former Congressman and NFL player Jon Runyan. (Photo courtesy of Jon Runyan)
February 14, 2021

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Every year National Salute to Veteran Patients Week provides Americans the opportunity to express gratitude to the more than 9 million veterans who receive healthcare services from the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers. 

Special activities and events organized by the VA in collaboration with the general public take place throughout the week to raise awareness about the tremendous efforts carried out by the VA to provide our nation’s heroes with the highest quality of life and high quality healthcare. In fact, research published by the Journal of General Internal Medicine indicates that in general VA hospitals provide a higher quality of care than non-VA medical facilities. 

This week also provides a platform for lawmakers and key influencers to reflect on the progress and innovation of VA, as well areas where the department could be better managed and improved. 

While representing New Jersey’s 3rd district in Congress from 2011 to 2015, I had the honor of serving on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs where I interacted with the unique operational structure of the VA, which relies on a forward-looking design that functions best when it stays on top, if not ahead, of modern standards and demands.

In Congress, I tirelessly worked to improve quality and access to healthcare for veterans, particularly mental health services with a focus on post-traumatic stress (PTS) treatment; worked on issues in the compensation and pension process of the veterans’ benefits system which were causing major delays in processing VA claims, sponsored and passed bills to make cost-of-living adjustments for veterans’ benefits automatic and to streamline treatment compensation. 

Of course, with medical, economic and societal changes taking place at a rapid pace, there will continue to be times where certain areas of the department are unable to keep up with themselves and the demands of its structure and the needs of our veterans. 

During my time in office, I saw firsthand the power of valuable public-private partnerships that can be leveraged to navigate some of these changes allowing us to create solutions for many of the challenges that change creates for the Department of Veterans Affairs and the care of our veterans. 

Public-private partnerships are invaluable at leveraging resources, through the private sector or nonprofit organizations. One such example is SoldierStrong, a Stamford, Conn.-based organization, that provides revolutionary medical technologies, such as exoskeleton suits which help paralyzed veterans walk again and virtual reality technology which aids in the treatment of PTS, at no cost to VA medical centers. These types of organizations allow veteran patients greater access to cutting-edge medical technologies, choices in their treatment options and remove some of the burden off the VA system health care system.

My experience in public office and the work carried out by nonprofit organizations also underscore a truth that National Salute to Veteran Patients Week reaffirms: we cannot place the burden on veterans alone to fight on behalf of other veterans or on a single government agency to offer solutions to all of the problems that our country’s veterans face daily. It requires a collective effort from lawmakers on both the local, state and national levels, civilians, private enterprises and nonprofits alike to ensure that our nation’s heroes have the highest quality of life and care available.

That said, I acknowledge that the situation places most of the power and influence with federal lawmakers. I understand from my own experience that lawmakers and stakeholders must proactively anticipate medical and societal changes and leverage advantageous public-private partnerships to adjust accordingly so that the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs will be sustainable for generations to come. Veterans and taxpayers should expect nothing less from the men and women that they elect to represent us.

Jon Runyan is the NFL’s vice president of policy and rules administration and serves on the advisory board of the national nonprofit, SoldierStrong. Prior to his current position, he played in the National Football League (NFL) for 14 seasons and represented New Jersey’s 3rd district in Congress from 2011 to 2015.