Congress Blog

To fix a broken system, give veterans choice

Men and women of our armed services give so much to defend our country, and expect little in return. What we do expect is that we will be taken care of once we return from protecting this country. Tasked with this responsibility, however, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to provide timely and quality care to many of our veterans.

After seeking treatment from the VA, I personally experienced what has caused too many of my fellow veterans to become disenfranchised with a system that has perpetually let us down. 

I joined the Marine Corps Infantry and served on active duty beginning in 2004. During my time in the Marines, I served a combat tour in Iraq in addition to deployments in Africa and Europe. Shortly after my honorable discharge, I went to the VA to seek treatment for neck and back injuries I suffered while in the Marines.

When I visited the VA for the first time, I was told I had to wait between two and six months just to get my first appointment-I felt like a number, not a priority. Scheduling problems only increased as my appointments got cancelled without my knowledge and then rescheduled without my consent.

When I finally did get to see my doctors and counselors, issues remained. My care was not properly coordinated between a constantly revolving set of doctors, counselors and social workers. I was prescribed all different types of drugs that affected me to the point where I was almost unable to function. I tried to raise concerns with the VA several times, but my care managers never got back to me or addressed these issues.

It's devastating to put your trust in a system that does not provide the care you need. Keeping the VA at the center of providing care, and dictating where and how veterans receive treatment does not produce the quality of care veterans have been promised. Congress, with the backing of the VA, has tried to allow some veterans to access the very best care available ­­­­­- whether that's from within or outside the VA.

The Veterans Choice Program was established by Congress as a short-term fix to give veterans more choice after the Phoenix waitlist scandal, during which VA employees manipulated wait times for appointments, resulting in multiple deaths. Although the Choice Program is well-intentioned, it faces many of the same issues that are rampant throughout government programs. It's not enough to meet veterans' needs-we can and must do better.

One of the illogical and overly-bureaucratic rules of the current Choice Program is that a veteran must live over 40 miles or 30 minutes from the nearest VA facility to qualify for it. Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin has outright stated that he is working to get this arbitrary rule off the books because it "just doesn't make sense for people who want to get health care." 

Ultimately, permanent reforms are needed to empower veterans with real health care choices. All veterans should have the opportunity to choose to use their benefits to receive care in the community. Effective cost controls should be implemented to ensure that a choice program remains solvent and is around for generations of veterans to come. 

I'm not alone in believing that veterans need more health care choice outside the VA's existing medical system. A recent poll showed that 98 percent of veterans surveyed favor allowing veterans to receive health care services from outside the VA. It is not controversial that veterans should get the best health care for them if that means going outside the VA - it's just common sense.

Veterans should not be forced into a situation like mine where issues go unresolved and care is inadequate. If the government was truly putting the veteran first, there would be no reason to deny veterans the ability to use their benefits outside the VA. 

I know I'm not the first person to have issues with the VA, and unfortunately, I won't be the last. Giving veterans choice is the only way to improve our care. Otherwise, the status quo will remain and veterans will not receive the care we need and deserve. 

Adam Miller is the Ohio senior field director for Concerned Veterans for America. Miller served on active duty in the United States Marine Corps from 2004 to 2008.

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