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The need for VA reform and oversight hasn’t changed in decades

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
This June 21, 2013, file photo shows the seal affixed to the front of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington.

As it has for decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) struggles to provide many veterans with the help they need in a timely manner. It’s a common refrain: “The VA is doing everything they can,” President Biden has reassured us.  

Yet, despite this reassurance, veterans continue to encounter difficulties with transitioning out of the military; enrolling and obtaining veterans benefits; finding meaningful employment; avoiding homelessness; utilizing VA home loans; navigating the backlog of VA benefits appeals; and of course, accessing health care, including mental health services. 

Controversies within the VA, especially with wait times for medical appointments, have given the agency a reputation that it takes a lackluster approach to helping veterans. The ongoing debacle of the integrated Electronic Health Records Management system is an example of a joint Department of Defense (DOD) and VA program that, as of last year, has taken 13 years and cost $39 billion — and it’s still not functioning properly. The disability claims backlog exceeds 200,000, despite repeated attempts to speed the process. The PACT Act, which President Biden signed into law in August 2022 to help veterans suffering from toxic exposure, has resulted in more than 360,000 claims by veterans and their survivors, but the agency did not obtain authorities and capabilities to begin processing claims until Jan. 1, 2023. The VA publishes a PACT Act performance dashboard every other week.

Part of the reason that veterans face obstacles is that they depend upon an entrenched bureaucratic system. The need to help veterans has been around much longer than many realize. Thirty years ago, in testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, many of the same issues were raised before Congress. A few examples:

  • “I have asked hundreds of veterans if they would prefer a VA health care facility above a private health care facility. I received a unanimous ‘no.’ The VA offers substandard care. There are long waits for clinics, clinic appointments, and when you get there, you still have to wait long hours.” — Mary Candice Ross, R.N., Ph.D., testifying in a hearing on May 4, 1994 (page 6). 
  • “When I sit down there in a chair and I wait for five or six hours for an appointment, or my appointment is canceled and I am not notified of it, I share that problem with all the veterans in this state and in this nation. … It is unbelievable that you have to wait six or seven months for an appointment. That is not a criticism of the hospital; it is a criticism of the system.” — Jackie D. Hanshew, DAV Commander, state of Georgia, testifying in a hearing on June 3, 1993 (page 62). 
  • “I am anxious to do whatever actions are necessary to assist [the Board of Veterans Appeals] in providing quality decision-making and alleviating these huge backlogs in benefit claims.” — former Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.), commenting during a hearing on May 6, 1993 (page 34). 

So, none of the VA’s problems is new. Numerous White House administrations and congressional sessions have devoted time and attention to veterans issues, resulting in new laws, programs, funding and hiring to try to fix persistent problems.

The VA has a more than $300 billion budget and around 426,000 employees to serve a portion of the 18 million living U.S. veterans. As the agency has grown, the number of military veterans has decreased. In 1993, there were nearly 28 million veterans and the VA budget was roughly $36.5 billion (or $72 billion in today’s value), a fraction of today’s budget.  

Congress has proven to be supportive of veterans and generous with authorities and funds to support them. But oversight of programming and funding is paramount. It’s important to hold bureaucrats accountable if they believe the only fix is more money and employees. In 2017, Congress passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, but two years later the VA’s inspector general found problems with implementing aspects of the law. The VA tends to “fire up” — that is, to promote or transfer those who have been problematic to distance them from an issue — which only serves to destroy the professional culture built by the agency’s many hardworking employees. The VA’s senior leaders must acknowledge problems and take responsibility.

Congress should provide better oversight of foundational issues involving the VA and seek answers to the questions and concerns posed by America’s veterans. The parallels between the VA and the war in Afghanistan are disappointing. In both cases, senior leaders often papered over serious shortcomings on the ground or were genuinely unaware of growing challenges. It is painful to note that many individuals who felt let down by senior commanders in Afghanistan now feel they are being let down by senior leaders at the VA.

Service to our nation takes many forms. Part of that service can be accomplished by any citizen — simply by asking why the government is not doing more to help our nation’s military veterans overcome challenges. Oversight and accountability are vital when it comes to veterans programs. Simply put, America’s veterans deserve more than to be fighting battles with bureaucracy after their military service. 

Darrell Owens is the director of government relations for America’s Warrior Partnership. He is an Army Reserve officer and was a former congressional staffer.

Clint Romesha, a retired staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2013 for his heroic actions during the October 2009 Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan. He is the author of “Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor.”

Tags Congressional oversight Department of Veterans Affairs Joe Biden Military veterans VA reform

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