Enough is enough: The VA must stop the manipulation and follow the law
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in December: “What I believe is that we are giving the best available care to our veterans, including historically high levels of care in the community.”
Well, Mr. McDonough, if the VA’s current offerings are the best this country has to offer our veterans, we have a lot of work to do.
Since the VA MISSION Act was signed into law more than three years ago, we’ve been paying close attention to the VA as it implements this landmark legislation that affords more veterans the flexibility to take their VA benefits and seek care in their communities.
But we are concerned about the progress that has been made … or, more appropriately, lack thereof.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, the VA should have worked overtime to increase that flexibility in accordance with the law. Instead, it did almost the opposite. Millions of appointments were canceled or delayed, many without the courtesy of a follow up.
Fortunately, the pandemic opened the door to deeper investigations into how the VA is mishandling its community care program. The problems are systemic, and deeply rooted in the VA’s dysfunctional administration.
A recent in-depth report found that VA administrators are overruling doctors’ decisions for the sake of cost control and keeping veteran patients in the VA health care system.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (and subsequent lawsuit after the VA didn’t comply with the request on time) reveal the infuriating realities veterans face in their attempts to get care.
The VA is using outdated scheduling guidance to determine who is eligible for community care, manipulating wait times so veterans are not offered alternative non-VA care, and actively dissuading veterans from using non-VA providers. Official guidance documents and phone scripts encourage VA employees to unload their coordination responsibilities onto veterans, misleading vets into thinking community care is a hassle and difficult to manage.
This all points to the VA putting bureaucracy ahead of the men and women it exists to serve. And while the VA secretary has called suggestions that the VA is breaking the law an “overstatement,” the evidence proves otherwise.
The VA’s own documentation shows it is not following the law, either in letter or in spirit. And that is unacceptable.
Veterans didn’t put on the uniform and risk their lives only to come home to a health care system that is more interested in preserving its own interests than providing so much as the bare minimum of attention and care.
This year, we reaffirm our commitment to ensure the VA follows the VA MISSION Act and gives veterans access to the care they deserve. We’re prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal, including calling for hearings on the Hill and investigations from the Office of Inspector General and Government Accountability Office.
Further, we will fight to get permanent community care access standards passed by Congress so there is transparency and stability in the Community Care Program.
Let 2022 be the year we all say “enough is enough” with the VA’s dysfunction and instead use the full force of government to demand better. Veterans deserve nothing less.
Russ Duerstine is deputy director of Concerned Veterans for America and an Air Force veteran. Marsha Blackburn is the senior senator from Tennessee and serves on the United States Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.