Caring for Our Nation’s Veterans
Earlier this month, we took time to pause and thank our nation’s veterans for their service and the brave sacrifices they have made for this country. At the same time, we reflected on how much remains to be done to support our service members when they leave the Armed Forces. And when it comes to the continuing health care needs of our veterans, it is plain we have far to go to ensure that they get the care they need and deserve.
In 2014, the nation was appalled to discover that a Phoenix Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital had covered up inordinate appointment wait times for veterans seeking treatment, and that the delays seriously compromised the health of veterans living there. A subsequent report by the VA uncovered that personnel at 110 VA facilities nationwide similarly manipulated records to reduce the appearance of wait times for medical care, including for critical post-deployment mental health issues. The report also revealed that a number of waitlisted veterans had died while waiting to see a doctor. It was a shocking and horrifying discovery for the nation, but perhaps not so surprising for many veterans who had trouble getting to see their doctor.
Simply put, our country had let down the very people who risked everything to protect it.
Congress acted quickly to pass bipartisan legislation to allow veterans to seek care outside of the VA at a private provider, but the creation of this Veterans Choice Program has fallen short of our expectations thus far. While the program was intended to increase access to care, many veterans have reported to my office that they have still experienced significant issues navigating the bureaucracy of the new system and that long wait times to see a private doctor remains a persistent problem.
In one example, a veteran in my district attempted to obtain an appointment from the VA to see a private provider, but was not successful after six months and multiple attempts to reach the agency. It was only after my office intervened that the veteran was extended an appointment. In another unacceptable instance, my office stepped in to sort out an administrative blunder after an outside provider billed the veteran directly for his medical care instead of billing the VA as should have been done according to normal protocol. I’m proud that my office was able to help these veterans, but I’m disappointed and dismayed that it was necessary for them to reach out to a Congressional office in the first place. They deserve better.
The Veterans Choice Program was only meant to be a temporary solution while we address the deep-seated accountability and capacity issues at the VA. The legislation passed by Congress has started to bring about overdue reforms, including increased oversight of those charged with leading and supervising the effective delivery of care at VA hospitals, expanding recruitment programs for talented medical students, and the construction of additional facilities. As we monitor the progress of these proposals, we must also continue to provide the VA with the resources it needs to meet a growing demand for care and remain a competitive health care employer that can recruit and retain top-notch talent at its facilities.
Having deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 14 years, a robust VA health care infrastructure is needed now more than ever to ensure that our veterans have stable and constant access to high-quality care.
This past Veterans Day, I had the opportunity to meet with many brave and patriotic service members from my district and it once again underscored the importance of meeting our commitment to provide for them here at home. I will do everything possible to ensure that the work to reform the VA continues and we provide top rate medical care to those who have worn the uniform of our country.
Rep. Adam Schiff represents California’s 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.