As I headed to work this morning, if I didn’t already know Christmas was just around the corner, I would figure it out quickly. I make my way to 810 Vermont, Veterans Administration Central Offices (VACO) in Washington, D.C., and pass storefronts decked out in red and green, twinkling white lights wrapped around the perimeter. On an evening run with ERPi colleagues last week, despite the tall buildings we could easily see the National Christmas tree at 15th and E Street in all its bright glory. The friendly gentleman who sits at the metro entrance every day greeting riders is even wearing a Santa hat!
My cell blinks with a text at 6:30 am. A dear friend is wishing me a Merry Christmas. This friend is a kind Veteran whom I’ve known for a number of years. Though in his 80s, he regularly meets a group, all Veterans, full of life and funny stories along with their many canes, walkers, and hearing devices. Collectively they wear Vietnam and Korean War Veteran hats to get their daily morning coffee and donuts together at the Army exchange on Ft. Meade. In additional text he shares information on how his son’s family is doing this holiday.
With all the festive decorations and well wishes it’s easy to think of this as time of joy and peace. I dive into my policy portfolio as I sit down to my desk, first reading a recertified national directive ensuring evidence-based practice is utilized for Veterans seeking mental health treatment. As an ERPi contractor, I am part of a team in the VACO Office of Regulatory and Administrative Affairs. We are working to address inconsistent and ambiguous policy, one of the areas of concern identified in the Government Accountability Office 2015 VA high risk report. Managing policy may sound like a technical position far removed from my friend who meets for coffee every morning; however, today I have a new awareness of the personal relevance this work can have.
My friend’s son was a Veteran of the Army himself, medically discharged. He has divulged enough for me to know that his son suffered significant mental issues after discharge culminating in an early death, around Christmas. Veterans have higher rates of mental health disorders compared to the general population; I can imagine that the holidays may be viewed quite differently for those already feeling overwhelmed. I know that my friend and his wife have been a significant source of support for his sons’ family despite their own pain, and he’s looking forward to Christmas with his grandkids this year.
I looked at my phone and reread the text chatter with my friend, then back to the policy on my desk. As far upstream as policy can be, as bureaucratic its nature, it nevertheless is the backbone for Veterans Health Administration health care service delivery. The work our team is doing is not with patients providing hands on care in the clinic; ensuring policy is clear, consistent, accountable, evidence-based, and field reviewed, however, results in Veterans receiving high quality, patient-centered health care down to the clinic level. For Veterans with mental health issues, this can have a transformative impact on their lives.
We owe our Veterans access to the best health care possible. I’m grateful for the work I’m doing with my ERPi team. This holiday season, it gives me hope for the future health all Veterans, and their families.