Restoring the VA's promise to veterans
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In the two years since news broke that at least 293 veterans died while on wait-lists at the Phoenix VA hospital and thousands more around the country suffered due to misconduct and negligence within the Department of Veterans Affairs’s Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the sad fact is that not much has changed. In fact, the situation is in many respects even worse.

Despite countless promises and billions more in taxpayer dollars given to the VA, the excessive delays in treatment uncovered in 2014 have become more prevalent. A NPR news report just revealed that just last month there were 70,000 more patients than last year waiting longer than a month for care. On top of that, medical errors in VA clinics have increased 7 percent over recent years.

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In the words of an independent assessment conducted for the VA, fixing this will require “no less than a systemwide reworking[.]” The reforms passed to date, unfortunately, have mainly made minor changes without address the underlying problems.

But now a real reform plan is under consideration in Congress. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersLawmakers celebrate 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote The GOP's commitment to electing talented women can help party retake the House McCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress MORE (R-WA) has drafted the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act. It’s the most serious and comprehensive VA reform proposal in decades.

Before this proposal, efforts to fix the VA diagnosed the department’s problems as a lack of money. Yet the VA’s funding is constantly growing, increasing nearly 68 percent between President Obama’s first year in office and 2015. Its 2017 budget, currently awaiting congressional approval, is a record-setting $170 billion.

Other policy changes have also come up short. For example, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, passed in the wake of the 2014 scandal, expanded veterans’ access to health-care outside the VA — but only if they had already waited too long for care or had to travel too far to receive it. Accordingly, veterans themselves have found these reforms far from helpful.

The Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act is the solution to these problems. In brief, it would: put veterans firmly in control of their own health care at the VA; force the VA to become more patient-centered; and free the VA from the bureaucratic red tape that has stifled reform for years.

These goals are similar to the ones identified by the bipartisan Fixing Veterans Health Care Task Force, which brought together a diverse group of respected policy experts, including former legislators and the former undersecretary for the VHA, to analyze the VA’s failings and devise solutions.

One of the first changes veterans would notice under this act is true health care choice at the VA. Whenever veterans decide it’s better for them to obtain care outside the VA system — for whatever reason — their benefits will entitle them to it, no questions asked.

Veterans who want to continue to use the VA can continue to do so with no additional cost-sharing. And those preferring care outside the VA would receive support to help cover their costs.

Another key reform is transforming the current VHA into a government-chartered nonprofit. As it is now, veterans’ health-care often falls victim to centralized government bureaucracy. For example, veterans are waiting endlessly for care at overcapacity and strained VHA facilities, particularly those in Sun Belt states. Yet other facilities, such as those in the Northeast, are comparatively less strained. This is because the VHA lacks the ability to align resources based on actual demand in an efficient way.

Giving the VHA more decision-making power would help make it more accountable and responsive to its patients. It would be able to restructure its facilities and align them around where needs are greatest. This also means more leeway to develop new, time and cost-saving information technology, such as smartphone apps that veterans could use to make appointments.  

One benefit of focusing on efficiency and careful use of resources means that all the reforms of this legislation can be implemented in a fiscally-responsible manner. As we’ve learned time and time again, the VA needs to fix the underlying problems with the services it already provides — not spend more to amplifyfailure. 

In order for veterans to get the quality, timely care they truly deserve, Congress must modernize the VA. This institution must be sustained for those who need it, but that will first require making it worth sustaining. Today, the VA treats too many men and women like numbers. With the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act, it will treat them like heroes.

Dan Caldwell is the vice president of legislative and political action at Concerned Veterans for America.