Congress needs to look for ways to supply our veterans with the healthcare they need

Over the years, our national security and defense programs have developed and adapted to address the threats and conflicts facing us both at home and abroad.  We have developed new strategies, new technologies, and in the process, the training, experience and role of the American warrior has evolved, as well. But the evolution of our warfighting systems and capabilities is not enough — the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs must also make changes and enact reforms to ensure veterans and their families are better prepared and better served when the veteran returns from war.

As the current conflicts continue to remind us, wartime injuries are no longer just physical. In recent years, a growing number of young men and women have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with symptoms of injuries that are often not as obvious as physical wounds.  Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress are examples of complex and complicated wounds that can be frustrating and sometimes debilitating for many veterans. Learning how to identify, treat and manage these injuries effectively are significant challenges for the DoD, VA, medical research and science communities.

I’ve heard numerous stories from veterans injured in the line of duty whose lives have taken destructive paths upon returning home simply because they did not want to seek help and no one knew where to access the proper level of care.

In many of these cases, a network of community advocates and care providers, working alongside or in concert with DoD and VA, might have been able to bring a veteran suffering alone into the right environment to receive care and counseling. We should focus on knitting together these types of partnerships to reach out to our veterans and attempt to address their needs proactively. Non-profit groups and veterans service organizations can often provide a valuable link between the veteran and the VA in cases in which a veteran might be unwilling or unable to ask for help. These community-based groups can also serve as a resource for family members bewildered by a loved one’s predicament and unaware of where to turn. Congress has been working closely with the VA to address the needs of these recently returned veterans while maintaining our commitments to veterans from earlier conflicts.

We’ve made great strides recently by implementing policies that will allow family members to be the primary caregiver for severely disabled veterans. The Family Caregiver Program Act of 2009, which was signed into law this spring, will help ensure that veterans in need of institutional care have the choice of receiving that care from a family member in their own home. This legislation is a step in the right direction for compassionately meeting the needs of veterans with obvious physical wounds, yet much work remains to develop policies and foster formal and informal care networks in our communities to find isolated veterans and deliver treatment for the thousands of them whose needs are not immediately obvious or who do not have access to attentive family and friends.  

Additionally, we can and must do more to provide access to care for our veterans who live in rural areas where traditional VA hospital services might be hours away by car or might be inaccessible due to weather. To improve access to care for these veterans, VA has created community-based centers and clinics to provide transition services, deliver specific medical care and conduct outreach to veterans where necessary. Under programs recently authorized by Congress, veterans and their families will be able to supplement care and treatment with these types of services. However, even with these advancements, rural access to care is still inadequate.

Whether it’s searching for creative solutions to lessen the disability claims backlog or enlisting the cooperation and support of community based groups, non-profits and veterans’ organizations, Congress needs to continue to look for ways to improve the access to quality healthcare services for our nation’s veterans — from those who served our country bravely in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam, to the most recent veterans of today’s conflicts who have high expectations given the technology at their fingertips and in their rehabilitation rooms. Make no mistake, this is an ongoing national-security issue. For the benefit of the nation, we must continue to view it in that context and act on it with a sense of urgency.

Sen. Burr is the ranking member of Veterans Affairs Committee