VA 'ain't broke' — but it can certainly be improved

VA 'ain't broke' — but it can certainly be improved
Freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSuper PAC head spars with CNN's Cuomo over Ocasio-Cortez ad Young insurgents aren't rushing to Kennedy's side in Markey fight Ocasio-Cortez endorses Markey in Senate race amid speculation over Kennedy candidacy MORE (D-N.Y.) isn’t shy about sharing her opinions on anything. So, not surprisingly, she recently weighed in with her thoughts on the status of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health-care system.

Last week, during a town hall meeting in her district, AOC described the VA by stating “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is a loaded term full of historical significance in the context of veterans’ affairs.

The phrase was a common refrain by the powerful former House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman, Sonny Montgomery (D-Miss.) in the 1980s in stating his opposition to judicial review of veterans claims.

By way of background, VA was the only government agency exempt from judicial review of internal decisions for over 200 years, allowing VA to live in what was known as “the era of splendid isolation.”  

When the idea of judicial review of VA benefits decisions gained traction with some newer veterans’ organizations, older, more traditional veterans organizations tried to discredit them.  

The newer organizations were comprised of a younger generation of veterans than the traditional organizations — in the case of judicial review, those who had served in Vietnam, and as is often the case with those who upset the status quo, their ideas were initially rejected and viewed as radical.

In response, the normally bipartisan and docile veterans’ affairs committees began to fracture along a generational divide. There was in-fighting amongst committee members, as well as among the traditional veterans service organizations, and the VA itself went on the defensive.

Sound familiar?

To anyone who has been following veterans’ issues over the past few years, it should. In addition to the usage of the phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” there are many similarities to the current debate over allowing veterans access to private health-care providers to the debate over allowing veterans access to judicial review 30 years ago.  

And, as a word to the wise for those opposing veterans’ choice to use the VA or a community care provider, those proclaiming that VA wasn’t broken ultimately lost their political fight, and VA became subject to judicial review with the passage of the Veterans Judicial Review Act in 1988.

In describing the veterans affairs judicial review debates, one media outlet in 1986 summarized the situation as “not only divid[ing] the [veterans’ affairs] committee . . . but it has also fragmented the various veterans organizations and sent panic straight to the heart of the VA.”

Take, for example, Montgomery’s opening statement at a 1986 hearing before the House Committee on Veteran’s Affairs:

“I think the question today is: why should we change a system that is working so well? Why change a system that serves the majority of veterans very well, just so that a few veterans can vent their frustrations by suing the United States?”

This statement could certainly apply to the current status of veterans affairs stakeholders, such as AOC, who feel that VA “aint’ broke;” that the system is, overall, working well; and shouldn’t be expanded to accommodate “a few veterans” who feel they cannot get the care that they want within the VA.  

Similarly, the merits of expanded access to outside care, as mandated by the MISSION Act, set to take effect on June 6th of this year, has certainly divided the Veterans’ Affairs committees.  

For example, the current House Committee Chairman, Mark Takano (D-Calif.) recently stated that “Democrats, we’re mindful of making government work . . . Republicans, in recent years, ideologically, have been wired to discredit government, to highlight failures and use that as an excuse to outsource everything.  That’s an extreme position.”

By contrast, Congressmen who are themselves veterans have disagreed with Takano on the fact that access to outside care constitutes “an extreme position.”

Freshman Rep. Dan Crenshaw, (R-Texas), although not a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, stated that he received care at four different VA facilities after returning from the war in Afghanistan, which was inconsistent, and stated that “I need the VA to be flexible enough to send me outside for care.”

Similarly, in announcing his 2020 presidential bid, Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), recently stated that he “made a commitment to continue getting my own health care at the VA when I was elected to Congress. That’s single-payer and I’ll tell you – it’s not perfect.”

As is often the case with political battles, when it comes to the VA health-care debate, there is not one side that is right whereas the other is wrong.  

Many members of Congress would be wise to study up on the history of the VJRA as they continue to debate the future of VA health care.  In particular, as stated by former Chairman of the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, Sydney J. Shuman:

“‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is a catchy phrase that I have heard and read about in the testimony of those opposed to judicial review over the years . . . no, it ain’t broke, but I think it can be improved.  I think that is something we’re all trying to do here.”

Likewise, currently, the VA health-care system ain’t broke, but it can certainly be improved, and I think that is something we’re all trying to do here.

As Chairman Montgomery conceded at the time of the VJRA’s passage, the legislation was “a compromise.  It goes further than some veterans’ service organizations want to go. It does not go as far as a couple would like.  But that is what compromise is all about.”

Compromise, although a seemingly lost art in today’s Congress, can go a long way toward improving VA health care. However, merely stating that VA “ain't’ broke” — also ain’t a way to help veterans at a time when a veterans’ suicide epidemic is sweeping the nation.   

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.