The VA is still our veterans’ best option for healthcare

In the words of our first president, George Washington, “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional as to how they perceive the veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their country.”

As the ranking Democratic member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I strongly believe that the VA provides the best care for our nation’s service members returning from overseas, having protected the freedoms we hold most dear. I am committed to assisting the VA with its critical mission of serving our veterans. The VA has served the special needs of returning veterans for over 85 years and has expertise in their unique healthcare needs, including prosthetics, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) and a host of other veterans’ specific injuries. My focus continues to be on ensuring that the VA retains the ultimate responsibility for the healthcare our veterans receive, regardless of the provider.

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It is important the VA has final authority over the care that veterans receive, whether at the VA or at non-VA providers. We need to continue to work with our veteran stakeholders to ensure the VA has all the resources it needs to provide superior healthcare to our veterans, which includes providing the necessary resources to address the ever-increasing population of female veterans.

Since the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act last year, the available care that veterans receive has increased. In fact, the timeliness of care at the VA has improved so much that veterans are now making the VA their first choice for care. While this has caused an increase in workload and wait times, long wait times are unacceptable and the VA is working to reduce them for new VA enrollees.

There are two different dynamics at work. For veterans already receiving care at the VA, most are being seen within four days of their preferred date. But for new enrollees, or veterans who are coming back to the VA for care after a long absence, the wait times are increasing. This is seen at all medical practices, whether at the VA or in private practice. New patients are not able to get in to a doctor for a significant period of time. Veterans want to be seen by experts in veteran care and that is my goal on this committee, and one good way to fix wait times is through the use of the Choice Act.

The Choice Act is designed to make sure that veterans have options for care. The program will provide veterans who are enrolled in VA healthcare with a Veterans Choice Card and allow those veterans who are unable to schedule an appointment within 30 days of their preferred date (or the clinically appropriate date or residence basis) to elect to receive care from eligible non-VA healthcare entities or providers. We agree that the Veterans Health System provides the best care for our nation’s veterans, and we need to continue to work to provide options for them.

Ratings claims represent the veterans benefits most associated with service-connected disabilities for veterans and their survivors. A claim is added to the backlog when a VA determination takes 125 days or more. The ratings claims backlog has been reduced to 76,354 claims from its peak of 611,000 claims in March 2013. VA claims processors across the nation have been working extra hours each month to help reduce the backlog. In addition, Fully Developed Claims allow claims processors to review all the evidence at one time. While this is good news, we need to continue to find ways to further reduce the time it takes a veteran to have his or her claim processed.

One of my most prominent agenda items when I took over the ranking member position was to address the problem of homeless veterans. As President Obama has said, “Too many of those who once wore our nation’s uniform now sleep in our nation’s streets. … Until we reach a day when not a single veteran sleeps on our nation’s streets, our work remains unfinished.” And through federal and local stakeholders partnering together, VA has greatly increased access to permanent housing, as well as a range of healthcare and specialty care services for homeless and at risk for homeless veterans and their families.

As the committee ranking member, I will continue to champion the rights of all veterans by working with my colleagues on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to increase funding for veterans’ healthcare programs, speed up claims processing, fight on behalf of women and homeless veterans and ensure that our nation’s veterans receive the funding for college education and the necessary training to succeed after their military service ends.

Brown represents Florida’s 5th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1993. She is ranking member on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and also sits on the Transportation Committee.