For Americans who’ve ‘borne the battle,’ we must continue commitment to VA’s services

If you visit the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) headquarters, you will see inscribed at the entrance the words of Abraham Lincoln, “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and for his orphan.”

Coined in 1865, these words serve as the VA motto and the ideal of what we owe those who have served. As our men and women in uniform have never wavered from their commitment to defend our freedoms, so have my colleagues and I made it our solemn duty to ensure that our nation’s heroes have access to the highest quality healthcare, benefits and services they have richly earned.

As the current Ranking Republican on the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, and having been a member of the VA Committee in several capacities since coming to Congress in 2001, I have been uniquely placed to oversee and influence the change and improvement that has taken place over the past eight years in the veterans healthcare system.

We have worked hard to consistently increase the VA healthcare budget over this period of time, and I am proud to point out that, since 2001, when I joined the committee, funding for the Veterans Health Administration has doubled from $21 billion to a historic $41 billion in 2009.

While I am proud of the significant increases in funding for veterans healthcare, the fact remains that Congress has been late in enacting the VA budget 19 of the past 22 years. One proposal that I have supported to resolve this problem is to provide an advance appropriations for certain VA healthcare, research and information technology accounts. Chronically late funding for such critical programs is a problem that must be corrected, and my colleagues and I are working diligently towards achieving our ultimate goal of providing satisfactory and timely care for all of our nation’s heroes.

My own work on the committee has focused on creating a presumption of service for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease); increasing the special pension for Medal of Honor recipients; repealing the “widow’s tax”; and increasing collaboration between VA Medical Centers, the Department of Defense (DOD) and its affiliations with our nation’s top medical teaching universities.

I also feel strongly that a continued commitment to VA health is crucial to ending the tragedy that is veteran homelessness. A veteran who does not receive the proper healthcare, or whose illness goes undiagnosed and untreated, is more likely to end up among the 131,000 veterans on the street on any given night. Current programs have nearly halved the number of homeless veterans, but we can do more. Increased attention by VA health is needed to screen returning veterans for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) as well as outreach to make sure veterans know what programs are available.

While much progress has been made, my colleagues and I have begun several initiatives to enhance the VA to meet the needs of each generation of veterans from World War II to our newest veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The first of these initiatives is to change VA culture. It is of the utmost importance that we ensure that our newest veterans are provided with the highest level of care to meet their unique needs. This means modernizing a healthcare system that has been focused on serving mostly older veterans with chronic illnesses, and enabling it to provide timely, quality care that can be obtained closer to home for the younger veteran coping with wounds of war like PTSD or TBI.

Many veterans across the country, and in my own 1st district of South Carolina, must travel long distances for medical care, sometimes driving over 100 miles from places like Conway, S.C. to the VA Medical Center in Charleston. With rising gasoline costs, I recently worked with my colleagues to enact a $50 million increase in the travel reimbursement rate, ensuring that all veterans continue to have access to high quality medical care.

Secondly, I strongly support increased sharing between VA, DOD and its affiliates. Collaborative partnerships are a powerful approach that VA can leverage to achieve greater healthcare quality and improve access to care and further efficiencies, while still preserving the identity of the VA. In my district, the close relationship and sharing between the Charleston VA Medical Center and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has demonstrated the usefulness of this concept. Since the leadership of MUSC came to VA with a proposal more than six years ago, the committee and I have taken significant steps to move forward with an historic opportunity to establish a new innovative model of care.

The “Charleston Model,” as the VA calls it, would involve the sharing of medical staff, research activities and medical facilities, eliminating the need for duplicate specialists and equipment. A significant milestone was reached in advancing the project with the passage of the Veterans Benefits, Health Care, and Informational Technology Act of 2006. With strong support from the VA Committee Ranking Republican Steve Buyer (Ind.), this legislation authorizes the VA to enter into an agreement for the planning of a co-located, joint-use facility in Charleston to replace the existing VA medical center. Although VA has yet to direct funds to move forward with this project, the “Charleston Model” serves as a national example that would enable veterans to have ready access to the highest quality care, when they need it and in the way that is comfortable for them to receive it.

With all of these initiatives in the works, and judging by our past progress, I am confident that we will continue to reach benchmarks and goals in our efforts to provide the best healthcare for all of our veterans. I look forward to another successful Congress that will bring us one step closer to showing these men and women how much their incredible bravery and sacrifice truly means to us.

Brown is a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.