CHIPPEWA FALLS — Clinics and hospitals operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs should be the first option for vets seeking help, says Jake Leinenkugel.
If veterans choose to go somewhere else, it means the VA is likely failing them, he said.
Leinenkugel, senior adviser to the White House for the VA, spoke before about 100 people Thursday at the Chippewa Valley VA Clinic in Chippewa Falls, describing steps the department is taking to improve care for its clients.
“We must modernize and streamline to make it easier for veterans to receive care when and where they need it,” Leinenkugel said. “We’ve got to make it easier for veterans to get that access. And it is going to get done at the local level.”
In coming months, veterans will begin seeing an ad campaign to “Choose VA” as their primary medical option.
Leinenkugel dispelled a rumor that President Donald Trump would like to privatize VA facilities. He said veterans hospitals and clinics can do a better job treating everything from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression to fitting veterans with prosthetics. The VA now has a $191 billion budget, which has tripled in the past decade.
The U.S. has about 22 million veterans, with about 9 million seeking medical care from the VA. Veterans have ailments ranging from missing limbs to mental health issues from their military service.
“Whether you like (Trump) or not, he is adamant they get the best quality care, when and where they need it,” Leinenkugel said.
Leinenkugel, who served as president of Leinenkugel Brewing Co. for 25 years, from 1989 until retiring in 2014, said he was embarrassed to admit he didn’t know Chippewa Falls had a veterans clinic until he started working for the department. Leinenkugel, who served in the U.S. Marines for six years, along with five more years in the reserves, has focused his 18 months as senior adviser on finding ways to reduce suicides and getting veterans the help they need.
“I was very naïve on the issues of veterans’ health, their mental health, their receiving — or not receiving — benefits,” Leinenkugel said.
One of the challenges facing the Department of Veterans Affairs is retaining staff. The VA has 220,000 positions for doctors and clinic workers nationwide, but about 20,000 of those jobs are currently unfilled. Leinenkugel said the department needs to look at ways to become more competitive and possibly match salaries with the private sector to fill those jobs.
Another goal Leinenkugel would like to accomplish is create incentives — possibly even providing money — to encourage veterans to become healthier. For instance, he said it would benefit a veteran to receive financial incentives if the veteran gives up smoking.
Patrick Kelly, director of the Minneapolis VA Health Care System, praised Leinenkugel for his work on the behalf of veterans.
“He’s really making a difference nationally,” Kelly told the crowd. “He’s heard from veterans and heard their frustrations, and taken them back (to Washington).”
Alicia Beranek, who heads the Chippewa Valley VA Clinic, said the department asked all outpatient clinics to hold an open house this year.
“This (event) was to highlight what this (facility) has to offer,” Beranek said.
The Chippewa Valley VA Clinic, 475 Chippewa Mall Drive in NorthRidge Center, serves 5,500 patients and has 36 workers in its headquarters, Beranek said. The veterans clinic offers primary care, mental health counseling, telemedicine services, social work, pharmacy and radiology.