Making progress on fixing issues within the VA

Making progress on fixing issues within the VA
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Now more than ever, the American people want to see two things from their nation’s leaders: that we can work together to solve the problems facing our country, and that we will deliver on our promises. While many in the national media are content to play the role of fight promoters, and many of our nation’s permanent political class default to partisan pettiness, there is at least one place in Congress focused on results-oriented, bipartisan problem solving. Congress often views policy solutions through a red or blue lens. However, when it comes to helping America’s veterans, the issues are red, white and blue. Each of us have our own deeply-held convictions about the role of government, but we are committed to putting our veterans first and ensuring they receive the care they were promised.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the agency entrusted with caring for our veterans, has become the face of all the ways the federal government has failed. The problems at the VA haven’t just been the usual red tape and regulatory creep that hampers so many government agencies, but a culture of mediocrity that has spawned billions of dollars in improper payments, half a million delinquent disability claims and no clear way to terminate employees who don’t perform. In the area of health care, this bureaucratic morass and lack of unaccountability has resulted in our veterans waiting in long lines to see a doctor, some getting sicker and others even dying. Fortunately, our committee has initiated several key reforms that get to the heart of the VA’s dysfunction.

An initial and important step toward reforming VA health care was the Choice program. Choice gives a veteran, faced with geographical challenges or long wait times, the option to see a health-care provider outside the confines of the VA. This program isn’t just common sense, its common decency. The folks who served and sacrificed for our freedom deserve the very best care, and the only way they are going to get the best care is to have choice.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act has already been signed by President Trump. This bill strengthens accountability at the VA by speeding up disciplinary actions, allowing recoupment or reduction in an employee’s pension, bonus, or relocation expense for misconduct, and enhances protections for whistleblowers. These are tools the Secretary of Veterans Affairs must have if he is to hold his employees accountable and ensure they’re serving our veterans with excellence.

While this Congress has taken great strides to improve choice and accountability for our veterans, there is still more work to be done. In April, I introduced the Veterans, Employees, and Taxpayers Protection Act of 2017. This legislation would eliminate another roadblock to serving our veterans. According to information uncovered by the Government Accountability Office, hundreds of VA employees—including numerous doctors and highly-paid health-care providers—spend 100 percent of their time working on union activities, leaving NO time to do the job taxpayers pay them to do: care for our veterans! My legislation would significantly limit the time VA employees can spend on union activity, and return their efforts to advancing the VA’s uniquely sacred mission of caring for those who risked their lives for our freedom.

These bills don’t address all that is wrong with the culture of the VA, nor do they guarantee that the VA will be the model of effectiveness. But, by introducing accountability and expectations for performance, we can begin the root and branch reform needed to make good on the charge Lincoln gave us in his second inaugural address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

What President Lincoln called a sacrifice on the altar of freedom applies not just to our honored dead, but to any who answered our nation’s call to serve. Veterans represent the very best of what this country was built on, service before self. I say this because, at a time when our country’s culture and political environment seems so divided, the one thing that continues to bring us together as Americans are our service members and veterans. For all of us elected to represent “We the People,” ensuring that the men and women who served us have the care they earned is our battle, and we must fight ceaselessly until that objective is reached. 

Arrington represents Texas’ 19th District and is a member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee.