Meeting Veterans Changing Health Needs

By Dyhouse, Tim | VFW Magazine, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Meeting Veterans Changing Health Needs


Dyhouse, Tim, VFW Magazine


As the man who runs a health care system that treats nearly 3 million veterans a year, Dr. Kenneth Kizer handles a big responsibility. His challenge: addressing the needs of patients while modernizing VA health care.

Take heart, VA users, the man in charge of your health care predicts the nation's largest integrated health-care system will prosper in the coming century. "I see very good things ahead for VA;' said Dr. Kenneth W. Kizer, undersecretary for health at VA.

Kizer, who's been in his present position since September 1994, has clear ideas about how VA will get better. Overall, he plans to make the system more "userfriendly" by:

becoming more ambulatory carebased;

providing patient care more conveniently;

taking care of more patients;

closely linking treatment sites;

improving accessibility to different VA facilities; and

consistently offering quality and courteous care.

It shouldn't be surprising that Kizer is so adamant about customer service. For seven years, he headed health services for the state of California. He strongly believes patients' needs should come first.

"You need to provide the patient the right care at the right time in the right place," said the former Navy doctor who served on active duty from 1976-80. He runs the Veterans Health Administration based on what he calls "the value equation," which ascertains cost, quality, patient satisfaction, care outcome and care availability.

This philosophy is especially relevant to outpatient treatment, which Kizer firmly supports and believes VA should use more often in the future.

"Medical technology allows us to do that," he explained. "You can now monitor people differently; you can give drugs in different ways. There's just a whole host of things that have allowed care to be provided in settings other than the traditional hospital."

MILITARY SERVICE A PLUS While stationed in Hawaii, Kizer served as a submarine squadron medical officer and was responsible for health care for more than 30 submarine crews and shore-based support staff. He was later the group medical officer for Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 1 and diving medical officer for EOD clearance of Pearl Harbor. He says opportunities the military offers can be crucial to success achieved later in life.

"The military allows one to assume a greater degree of responsibility at a younger age than in the private sector," he said. "The military also exposes you to a lot of different things and situations that you wouldn't see in another setting. I found this very useful."

Some of Kizer's military experiences proved to be extremely useful in his present job. As part of his undersea training, he learned about radiation biology and nuclear weapons. He also spent time overseeing aspects of the cleanup of the nuclear test site at Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands.

"That brought a degree of familiarity with concerns of atomic veterans and those exposed to radiation," he said. "My background in toxicology also has been particularly helpful when dealing with issues like Agent Orange and Persian Gulf ailments."

ON GULF WAR SYNDROME On the issue of Gulf War veterans' unexplained illnesses, Kizer is more interested in providing care than debating what is causing the ailments.

"There are certainly veterans who are sick and having problems," he said. "But people are far too concerned with whether these ailments are a syndrome or not. We are focusing on veterans problems and trying to treat them."

As a toxicologist, Kizer believes not enough research has been performed to answer the question of whether low-level chemical exposure is the source of Gulf vets symptoms. But he does have an opinion.

"Ultimately, I think we'll find there are multiple causes for people's complaints," he said. "It probably will not be a single agent or a single cause.

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