Opinion

Agreeing On What’s Best For Veterans

There’s a national consensus that veteran health care needs fixing. My organization has spent years advocating for reforms at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and now lawmakers have the chance to deliver the quality care and timely benefits our veterans deserve.

The VA exists to provide the health care benefits earned by those who served in the military. Our government promised to care for those who’ve served, and it’s a promise that can’t be shifted to anyone else. It’s also why such substantial reforms are necessary.

Many VA employees serve our veterans with dedication and professionalism, which shouldn’t be forgotten or invalidated by the many failures of other VA officials. In fact, many VA employees have stepped up to report wrongdoing – often risking retaliation from their supervisors in the process.

But we also know that the VA has been wrought with corruption for years.

The VA’s structural failings are so well-documented and shocking that they scarcely need an introduction. Many VA executives and administrators have manipulated data to make it seem like veterans were receiving timely care, when in fact hundreds of thousands were waiting months to see a doctor. Potentially preventable suicides, deaths due to unnecessary medical lapses or errors, and tragic and embarrassing breaches of dignity are all too commonplace.

If a private hospital system had this sort of track record, it would quickly lose patient confidence and go out of business. When it comes to the VA—the nation’s largest hospital system—our government actually rewards this broken track record. Its budget has grown 85 percent since President Obama took office, yet with few corresponding signs of improvement – from what we can see. Historically, the VA has refused to let the public see its internal assessmentsout of concern that veterans will discover the facility they use is ranked poorly.

With a new President and Congress taking office soon, now is an opportunity for to pass significant reform to the VA. But identifying the best way to optimize VA health care requires an honest assessment, and not everyone is willing to do that. Some defenders of the status quo at the VA, such as U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont), have claimed that reforms that offer more health care choice for veterans would diminish the VA or privatize it altogether. This is an intentionally misleading assertion that has been disproven by reputable fact-checkers time and time again.

As we’ve said repeatedly, the government has promised to provide for our veterans’ well-being, and that promise can’t be broken. We envision a role for the VA health care system as a high-performing, sustainable organization. Ultimately, sustainability isn’t just a buzz word. As it is now, the VA isn’t positioned to provide reliable care for veterans of the future, to say nothing of those past and present.

Some pieces of legislation already in Congress, such as the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, can help achieve that sustainability.

The centerpiece of this draft legislation would empower veterans to use their VA benefits where it works best for them, whether at a VA facility or at local doctors. Other government services already make extensive use of civilian contractors and service providers to provide better outcomes. There is no reason not to do this with veteran health care, especially given the United States has a well-developed civilian health care infrastructure. There is also already acknowledgement on both sides of the aisle that there is a role for private care in veterans’ health care.

Another crucial reform we’re hoping the new Congress will pursue is the VA Accountability Act.

So much of the VA’s work depends on retaining talented professionals and disciplining those who commit wrongdoing. To strengthen that capability, the bill gives the VA more control over its workforce, allowing the agency to fire employees in a timely fashion. As it is now, government bureaucracy often prevents that from happening. This is unlike the private sector, where underperforming or unethical employees are disciplined quickly, before their actions can effect patients.

These are just some of many steps that can improve veterans’ care, empower them to choose what works best for them, and give the VA the tools to make it happen. It’s a huge and daunting responsibility to serve those who’ve put their lives on the line for this country and the VA has a long way to go in fulfilling this mission. I know we can all agree that veterans deserve better, and I know we can make it happen.

Dan Caldwell serves as the Vice President of Policy and Communications at Concerned Veterans for America.