Congressional VA reforms are promising start. Will Senate deliver?

The June 9 release of a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) audit of veterans’ wait times for medical care reveals in the starkest terms the disastrous state of service at VA facilities nationwide.

The evidence of the VA’s sickness is now beyond dispute. Now it’s time to move beyond diagnosis and to focus on treating and healing the patient.

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Congress is moving in the right direction with prescriptions for greater choice, accountability and transparency at the troubled department. It’s now up to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and President Obama to show the leadership needed to make VA reform a reality. Will they deliver?

The VA’s preliminary audit offers an eye-opening picture of the systemic rot and dysfunction of the department’s health care system. That diagnosis confirms the problems VA watchdogs have warned about for years.

According to the audit, more than 100,000 veterans are “experiencing long wait” times at VA health facilities—an outrageous and unacceptable total. Of that number, more than 57,000 have waited more than 90 days for an initial appointment, while 64,000 are simply waiting for an appointment to be scheduled.

Keep in mind that healthcare waits are only one facet of the VA’s well-documented dysfunction. The department also continues to struggle with long delays for veterans’ applications for disability and compensation benefits; as of June 9, the VA had 686,861 claims pending, with 403,761 of those (nearly 60 percent) having waited more than 125 days.

The numbers tell the story of a department that is failing in its mission, despite substantial funding increases in recent years to meet growing demand. In fact, the VA budget has grown by more than 68 percent since 2009. At almost $164 billion this fiscal year, the VA budget is the second largest in the executive branch—only the Department of Defense receives more funding.

Yet the VA continually fails to set responsible budget priorities. Reports abound of wasteful spending, outrageous “performance” bonuses paid to underperforming VA employees and misallocated capacity at VA health facilities (for example, it was recently revealed that VA cardiologists in Albuquerque, N.M., see fewer than two patients per day).

In the days and weeks to come, you’ll hear calls for more VA funding, but the fact is that without the appropriate reforms, an influx of additional funding will only compound the department’s existing problems.

Against this backdrop, the push for VA reform on Capitol Hill is an encouraging, if long overdue, development. The House has passed, by overwhelming bipartisan majorities, measures to strengthen accountability and to increase patient choice for VA beneficiaries.

Meanwhile in the Senate, a bipartisan legislative deal crafted by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.)  and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) represents a promising step in the right direction. The bill would strengthen accountability by empowering the VA secretary to fire underperforming executives, expand patient choice and flexibility by allowing veterans to seek care either at a VA center or a private facility, and enhance transparency by requiring greater disclosure to Congress and the public.

While it’s not a perfect bill—for one, the accountability protections are stronger in the House version, which Concerned Veterans for America prefers—it represents a serious approach to VA reform. Most importantly, it would send a clear signal that “business as usual” will no longer be tolerated at the VA.

To be sure, the proposed reforms are only the first steps in a long journey. It’s critical that veterans and advocacy organizations pay close attention to the legislative details as these bills wend their way through Congress. We need to watchdog the process to ensure that extraneous amendments are not attached to the legislation, and that the key provisions related to choice and accountability are not diluted.

And of course, should the package pass both chambers of Congress and be signed into law, we’ll need to be equally vigilant to ensure that the Obama administration implements the reforms properly. Given the administration’s frequent disregard for legislative intent, it’s critical that Congress step up oversight of the VA reform process. Lawmakers’ jobs won’t be done when they pass their votes in support of the bill.

But that’s no excuse to fail to act. Fixing Veterans Affairs is a critical and imperative need; the men and women who have served our nation in uniform deserve better treatment than they’ve gotten from the unaccountable and calcified VA bureaucracy. The Senate should move to pass the McCain-Sanders reform bill quickly, so we can begin the hard work of repairing what’s broken.

Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a Fox News Contributor and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. He is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard, and has served tours in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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