Overburdened VA Shelves Ad Campaign To Attract More Veterans

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The VA is rethinking its outreach, and is pausing a $4 million ad campaign. The problem: outreach might bring more veterans into a system that's struggling to handle who it is already serving.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A recent poll shows only one in five Americans has confidence in the care veterans get in the VA - not surprising given the recent scandals about how long veterans have to wait for a doctors appointment. Turns out, that combination of delay in an overloaded system and the scandal surrounding it has caused the department to change the message it's sending to veterans which has left one expensive ad campaign sitting on the shelf at the VA. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence with more.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: About 9 million American veterans use VA health care - that's out of about 22 million veterans total. In theory, the VA would like to serve all of them. So they have outreach campaigns like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAMPAIGN)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The military has been in every generation of my family and so has VA.

LAWRENCE: That TV ad aired in some markets last Fall during the government shotgun. A young woman talked about everything from the G.I. Bill to VA home loans to VA burial services.

ALEX HORTON: You get too many people in the system when the system is at max capacity, in a lot of ways, already.

LAWRENCE: And that may be one reason why the VA has not yet released a much larger TV campaign already produced by the public service Ad Council. It cost $4 million to make. Tommy Sowers was assistant secretary at the VA when the campaign was produced. He says it would bring vets in the two the VA health care system.

TOMMY SOWERS: We've already paid for it. It's already done. It's time to launch this Ad Council campaign.

LAWRENCE: Sowers says the VA has a duty to make sure these vets know about the benefits they're owed. He understands it's a strain on the VA's resources but that's no excuse to not reach out to vets that may need help right now - vets who may be suicidal, for example. Sowers points to a study that found vets in the VA system are much less likely to kill themselves.

SOWERS: Seventeen of the 22 veterans take their life every day have never sought VA health care. That's where, I think, some of the focus must be - on better outreach and making sure that veterans know and understand their benefits. And when they do, that will require more resources.

LAWRENCE: Current VA officials said the Ad Council campaign was held back through the winter for a variety of reasons. And then the scandal regarding wait times broke. Joe Curtin is the VA director of outreach.

JOE CURTIN: We're in a new situation right now. And again, our priority is to get our veterans off these waiting lists and into health care. That is our priority right now.

LAWRENCE: That's why the VA outreach now is less about how good the service is and more of an apology.

SLOAN GIBSON: We hope to earn trust back. We don't expect it to be given. We expect to have to earn it.

LAWRENCE: Sloan Gibson, the new acting VA secretary, has been visiting VA's around the country with the same message.

GIBSON: With veterans, we'll have to earn it one veteran at a time. And it may be starting the process with a phone call to a veteran that's been on a wait list somewhere - a phone call that says, hey, we want to get you in the clinic. That's a step in the right direction.

LAWRENCE: The Ad Council campaign is still on the shelf and it's not clear when it'll be released. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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