We make a pact with members of our military: Serve our country in uniform and we’ll look after you when you come home.
The benefits we provide are modest in exchange for sacrifices that cannot be fully repaid. But we’re proud of that commitment, and justifiably outraged that the Department of Veterans Affairs is falling far short of expectations.
Veteran Affairs Secretary Erik Shinseki’s resignation was necessary. He was distracting from the real issues at the VA. With his departure, we can concentrate on solutions.
After allegations of misdeeds at VA facilities across the country, the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General confirmed what we already knew: wait times, falsified records and mismanagement led to potentially devastating circumstances for many veterans. This situation is appalling, and it was as preventable as it is tragic.
The VA, Congress and the White House received warnings about unacceptable wait times. A 2008 report by the VA Office of Inspector General recommended the Obama administration investigate discrepancies in wait times, warning that reported wait times should not be trusted. In 2010, a memo from the VA deputy undersecretary listed more than a dozen inappropriate scheduling practices at medical facilities. And in 2012, the Government Accountability Office reported that VA’s reporting on medical appointment wait times was unreliable, outdated, easily manipulated and in need of a complete overhaul.
In the midst of this, a veteran facing endless wait times at the Phoenix VA sought help from my office. When my staff contacted the VA, they, too, struggled to receive timely responses. No veterans should need a congressional office to access the benefits they sacrificed so much for in the first place. The fact that they did demonstrates a lack of transparency, accessibility and accountability.
Clearly, the VA can be salvaged only through significant reforms. But it is a system worth saving. It’s time for significant reforms, starting with proper funding and leadership.
Scheduling and wait-time problems stem from chronic understaffing. The Phoenix VA urology department, which has enough estimated demand for four full-time urologists and four midlevel staffers, has been relying on just one full-time and one part-time urologist. Together, with a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner, they are responsible for treating an estimated 3,000 prostate cancer patients. Sadly, this scenario is playing out at VA facilities throughout the country.
The VA also needs more funding. Each year, a collaboration of Veterans Service Organizations releases the Independent Budget, which proposes funding levels intended to meet the needs of our veterans. The Congressional Progressive Caucus introduced the Better Off Budget that met their calls for increased funding. But unfortunately, Congress has not acted on these proposals.
Finally, our choices as a nation matter, too. We chose to go to war and not implement a funding mechanism to care for veterans at that time. Republicans routinely rejected proposals for a surtax to help guarantee adequate funding for veterans. Similar taxes were implemented during World War II and the Vietnam War, but were rejected in recent years.
With 1.5 million new veterans returning after more than a decade of wars, we cannot wait any longer. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently said, “If you think it’s too expensive to take care of our veterans, then don’t send them to war.” I cannot agree more. Sen. Sanders is proposing legislation to increase accountability and improve veterans’ health-care benefits, education and jobs training programs. I urge my colleagues to join me in supporting his efforts.
We must be clear-eyed about the nature of these problems. With more than 90 percent of veterans reporting good medical care through the VA, proposals to privatize these services misdiagnose the problem.
Instead, we must provide the staff and resources we know the VA needs. We need strong reforms that require accountability, yearly audits, independent reviews and systemwide transparency. That’s the only way to fix the system and fulfill our promise to our veterans.