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Congress must act to ensure veterans receive the care they earned

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During more than a decade and a half of war, our all-volunteer force has never faltered. 2.7 million service members have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, and many bear the scars—both visible and invisible—of war. Because of their selfless dedication to completing the mission, these men and women spent months and years away from loved ones, missing holidays, anniversaries, their best friend’s wedding, and the birth of their child. They asked very little of our nation in return.

But they, and the millions of veterans that came before, were told the VA health system would care for them when they hung up their boots. Unfortunately, that promise has not been kept.

{mosads}In 2014, it was uncovered that veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital were waiting so long for care some had died as a result. Soon after, other scandals at VA facilities across the country revealed the appalling quality of care many veterans were receiving and exposed rampant dysfunction at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). As a temporary fix to provide relief and swiftly deliver quality care to our nation’s veterans, Congress created the Veterans Choice Program.

The intent of the program was to allow veterans who would have to wait more than 30 days or travel more than 40 miles to the nearest VA treatment facility to use their benefits to get care from a private physician in their local community.

In practice however, the Veterans Choice Program has been poorly implemented and long wait times continue to plague the system.  What’s more, the Veterans Choice Program recently faced a budget shortfall and will likely run out of money again next year. The program doesn’t work because it leaves the VA bureaucracy largely in control of a veteran’s health care and fails to deliver the timely, quality care lawmakers envisioned.

This must change. Veterans deserve the best care available and control over their health care choices. The best way forward, as Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) recommended in our 2015 Fixing Veterans Health Care taskforce report, is to fully empower veterans to decide when and where to get care. 

And now, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) has introduced a bill—the Veterans Empowerment Act—that would reform the VA health system and truly expand veterans’ health care choice in an effective and sustainable way.

The bill would restructure the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) existing medical facilities into a government-chartered nonprofit corporation that can better adapt to the changing health care needs of our veterans. It would also create a veterans’ health insurance program that enables veterans to use their benefits either inside or outside of the VA system. And it increases oversight and transparency to prevent future cases of abuse and mismanagement.

The measure will strengthen the VA by modernizing the department and freeing up the VA health system to concentrate on its original purpose: Caring for veterans with service-connected disabilities. 

Those are the changes veterans want to see. In a 2017 nationwide survey,  veterans were overwhelmingly supportive of VA health care reform and more than 90 percent were in favor of “giving veterans more choices in their health care by allowing them to receive health care services from medical facilities or health care providers outside of the VA’s existing medical system.”

Congress now has the opportunity to make this a reality by passing the Veterans Empowerment Act. And they must so that veterans who have given so much to this country can finally receive the care they earned.

Dan Caldwell is the executive director of Concerned Veterans for America. Caldwell served in the United States Marine Corps and is a veteran of the Iraq War. 

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