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VA reforms for the next four years

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In 1945, care for veterans stood on the precipice of change. A Veterans Administration built for World War I was now flooded with millions of World War II veterans with their own unique needs.

General Omar Bradley turned his focus from the battlefield to Washington, leading modernization efforts to support a changing generation of veterans.

Gen. Bradley’s thoughts on veterans care were simple but powerful, “We are dealing with [veterans], not procedures; with their problems, not ours. We must constantly seek to understand those personal problems and exercise the imagination to solve them.”

Seventy-three years later, those words still ring true.

We find ourselves once again facing changes in veterans’ needs.

The veteran population is growing younger and is increasingly made up of post-Vietnam War veterans. Changes in warfare have resulted in different health care needs.

The next four years will be a crucial time to continue building on the Veterans Affairs reforms proposed by the Commission on Care, veterans organizations, and Congress.

As we follow Gen. Bradley’s lead in seeking to understand veterans and their needs, three key principles should guide modernization and reform.

The first principle is the veteran must always come first, not the VA. Legislation such as the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 and the VA MISSION Act of 2018 were bold moves toward veteran-centric policy, but we must build on that success.

Congress and the VA must continue improving the delivery of health care through proper implementation of the VA MISSION Act, especially the community care program and upcoming Asset and Infrastructure Review Commission, an independent commission tasked with assessing whether the VA’s infrastructure meets the needs of patients.

That will ensure veterans have access to care when they need it, and the VA is streamlined to address the needs of veterans today, while preparing it for veterans’ needs in the future.

A strong model to follow is the Department of Defense TRICARE system, which offers service members multiple options and is flexible enough to adjust quickly to a changing landscape.

Congress and the VA must also strive to eliminate bureaucratic red tape, policies, and practices that limit choices, cause long wait times, and restrict access to hard-earned benefits.

Addressing these bottlenecks, ensuring the VA is more transparent, and looking to the latest in health system technology from the public and private sector will help put the veteran first and the VA on a trajectory to provide world-class health care.

The second principle for better serving veterans is for the VA to prioritize those with service-connected disabilities, those who receive disability benefits, and those with specialized needs.

The VA is not just a health care provider. It is also a benefits and services administrator. But the system operates on a 1950s view of disability and compensation. We wouldn’t accept an approach to health care from the time of the Korean War. We shouldn’t accept an outdated approach to disability and compensation benefits, either.

Veterans need a modernized system that reflects today’s changing demographics and disabilities not dealt with after previous wars.

This should include an independent review of current VA disability compensation practices, eligibility standards, and benefits structures within the Veterans Benefits Administration. Only then can the VA move forward with a better understanding of what it now offers and what better alternatives there are in providing for veterans with service-connected disabilities.

The VA’s disability system must also put a greater emphasis on rehabilitation for veterans who bear the scars of war. As technology and innovation improve physical and mental health care, the future is bright for those with service-connected injuries and disabilities. The VA must modernize disability compensation practices, while empowering veterans to succeed and overcome in civilian life.

The final principle for better serving veterans is to lead with courage and commitment.

As Gen. Bradley said, caring for veterans is about “their problems, not ours.” Whether the arguments are petty squabbles or legitimate disagreements, Republicans, Democrats, the VA, and veterans organizations must put aside partisanship and siloed, myopic thinking. Reaching across the aisle shows a strong commitment to veterans that transcends politics.

Lawmakers, administrators, advocates, and leaders must work together to do what is best for veterans. We saw such a commitment in Congress in 2017 and 2018 when bipartisan cooperation brought sweeping VA reforms. That approach needs to continue.

It will take courage, vision, and hard work, but we must work together over the next four years to continue modernizing and reforming the VA. Our veterans deserve nothing less.

Darin Selnick is a senior advisor for Concerned Veterans for America and an Air Force veteran. He served as veterans affairs adviser on President Donald Trump’s Domestic Policy Council and as a senior advisor to the VA secretary.

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