“Thank you for your service.”
You hear it said – or say it yourself – to the veteran waiting in line with you at the airport. You see it and say it during a standing ovation at a ballgame. And you see it as a comment to a veteran on a message board online. It’s never enough, but it’s certainly something that I love to see, hear, and say as often I can.
And if you missed the opportunity to thank a veteran on Veterans Day, this week you can join me in shouting it loudly and proudly while also being sure to give thanks to the women and men who have dedicated their lives to caring for those who sacrificed everything in the service of their country.
The Department of Veterans Affairs was founded to help care for those “who have borne the battle.” And through the Veterans Health Administration, Veterans Benefits Administration, and National Cemetery Administration (which has the highest customer satisfaction rating of any organization – public or private – for six consecutive years), the VA cares for our veterans like no one else.
The VA is the country’s leader in the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, treating more than 560,000 veterans annually. The VA pioneered the first liver transplant, invented the cardiac pacemaker, developed the nicotine patch, and engineered bionic ankle-foot prostheses. The VA treats more than 26,000 people with spinal cord injuries and related disorders each year – making it the largest health care system in the world providing spinal cord care. And it’s the research done at the VA that’s earned three Nobel prizes, seven Lasker awards, J.D. Power’s highest customer satisfaction score nine years running, and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientist and Engineers (PECASE) 26 times.
There are some who like to say the VA is failing our veterans, but it’s just not true. The VA is succeeding in nearly every measurable way, even though they are severely understaffed with more than 45,000 vacancies nationwide. It’s a slap in the face to the hundreds of thousands of women and men who care for our veterans – more than one-third of whom are veterans themselves – to try and pretend veterans aren’t receiving great care at the VA.
And thankfully, veterans and their service organizations agree.
According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 92 percent of veterans said they want more investments in the VA – compared to one percent who want to seek out care in the private, for-profit sector. According to VoteVets, 80 percent of veterans say they don’t want vouchers for private care – they want the VA. And according to the VA’s own research, veterans report a 90 percent satisfaction rating with getting appointments when they want.
Imagine how much more satisfied our veterans would be with their care if every VA medical center was properly staffed? How many more veterans would get even faster access to the country’s leading health care provider if the administration would get serious about these vacancies and make up for the shortfall that has existed for years?
Since 1998, staffing at the VA has grown by 59 percent, while the veteran patient population expanded by an astounding 159 percent. This massive gap in staffing and patient population was one of the biggest reasons the wait list crisis came to a head in 2014, but it still hasn’t been addressed. Instead of taking up legislation from members of Congress who want to increase hiring, the president and his allies are focusing on how to dismantle the VA and gut the workforce – no matter how much veterans tell them they don’t want it stripped and sold for parts.
And if they continue to ignore what veterans want, we’ll all suffer.
More than 70 percent of all doctors in the United States received all or part of their residency training in VA health care facilities. It’s the largest single provider of care in the country for chronic Hepatitis C virus infections. And it’s currently leveraging the largest genomic database in the world to support several precision medical initiatives that will save and help millions of people.
So, this Thanksgiving, I definitely want you to be sure to give thanks to those who have served and continue to serve our country. But I’d also like you to take a minute and think about how the VA thanks them every day. And how, if we’re not careful, veterans could lose their best health care system – and the only one that’s tailored to their unique needs.
Without the VA, the 9.3 million veterans who seek out their health care at the VA will suffer. The doctors we all see will have less training and we’ll all suffer. And progress on the innovations being worked on right now will come to a screeching halt. So please, while you think about the needs of the veteran you’re thanking, don’t forget that protecting and supporting the VA is the most important thing you can do to show your gratitude for veterans’ service.
Cox is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.