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VA 'energized' to move into the 21st century, says new assistant secretary Schwartz

Before she assumed her new job as assistant secretary for policy and planning for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, former state Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz expressed frustration at being an outside observer of the VA.

On the inside for about five months now, Schwartz said, "There's a lot of opportunity for change and innovation."

Schwartz waited more than a year for the Senate to confirm her in her federal role, but she didn't even have a day in between her old job and her new one. The Pawcatuck resident said she left her job with the state last Oct. 13 and started her new job on Oct. 14.

"It's an exciting time to be at the VA," Schwartz said.

Schwartz is responsible for developing and reviewing VA departmental policy, analyzing data and evaluating transformation initiatives. She also co-chairs the joint VA/Department of Defense Interagency Care Coordination Committee (IC3), which she said examines the needs of those who have become injured or disabled in the line of duty as they make the transition out of the military and into civilian life.

"This is the model of the future," she said in a phone interview last week.

The committee is "working to create a seamless transition" for these veterans, she said, "but at same time we are being mindful of taxpayer dollars."

As a result of an aircraft accident that led her to retire, Schwartz, who served as a flight nurse with the Air Force, has used VA health care since 1993 and has said veterans' care is one of her top priorities.

"This is a very promising team of people," she said, adding "the leadership here are energized to start looking at ways to bring the VA into the 21st century."

Schwartz described an environment at the VA different from the one that made headlines last year for a nationwide scandal involving secret wait lists and delayed care for veterans. The VA and Congress are currently investigating a more recent scandal alleging that a VA medical center in Wisconsin had been overprescribing narcotics.

Schwartz said that recently appointed Secretary Robert McDonald acknowledges that "we have to rebuild trust, and I think he's dedicated to making that happen."

"The most important message here is the new secretary has come on board with determination to improve customer service," she said. "We will be seeing a lot of innovations."

She added that the VA secretary has asked all employees within the VA system to recommit annually to the department's values embodied in the mantra 'I CARE,' which stands for integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence.

Schwartz shared a story of a fire chief from Massachusetts who stopped in to her husband's restaurant in Stonington over the Christmas holidays. The man said to Schwartz, "I hear you work for the VA," she recalled. He then told her that after his last VA appointment he received a call asking about his experience and "I want to let you know I appreciated that," he told Schwartz.

"These are the things that don't make headlines," Schwartz said.

Over the weekend, McDonald and President Barack Obama made headlines with a trip to the Phoenix VA hospital, which was at the center of the wait-list scandal. There, Obama, McDonald and Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson participated in a roundtable with veterans to hear about progress at the facility so far. The president also announced the creation of a new advisory committee that will recommend reforms to improve customer service at the VA and help modernize the department. The committee will reportedly be made up of veterans, medical professionals and academics and corporate executives.

j.bergman@theday.com

Twitter: JuliaSBergman

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