Opinion Pieces

Longview Daily News Guest Column: VA has been doing our vets a disservice

We owe the privilege of living in the greatest nation largely to those military veterans who have sacrificed to defend it.
We owe the privilege of living in the greatest nation largely to those military veterans who have sacrificed to defend it. It is thus difficult to explain how the agency created to provide for their health care – including treatment for the wounds they suffered in service to our nation – has fallen so short.

One Washougal veteran recently shared his story with me that mirrors the problems too many are experiencing locally with the VA. When “Steve” joined the Army, he fully understood that deploying to Iraq would involve risks– but it never crossed his mind that one would be the difficulty of obtaining the health care he was promised upon his return.

After his service ended, Steve’s doctor requested an MRI at the Portland VA Medical Center for a combat-related knee injury. That was in November of 2012. However, it wasn’t until October of 2013 -- after ten months of phone calls and conversations with VA caseworkers who couldn’t explain the delay -- that the appointment was finally scheduled. He was also unable to get the VA to provide the back surgery needed for an injury sustained in Iraq.

His story is hardly unique. In the wake of news that a Phoenix VA Medical Center was manipulating wait times and denying care, an internal VA investigation found that the Portland VA Medical Center that serves Southwest Washington residents has an average wait time of 80 days for their first basic care appointment for issues like high blood pressure or asthma. New patients must wait 29 days for their first mental health appointment. That’s too long for someone suffering symptoms of PTSD or other serious mental trauma.

The reason I regularly host veterans resource fairs in Kelso and Chehalis, and why I highlight stories of Southwest Washington veterans on the front of my website, is because we should do everything we can to honor and support our nation’s heroes. Along those lines, it’s clear what Congress must do: fix the problems in the VA and put the care of our veterans first.

How to start? First, let’s make sure veterans who have been waiting for appointments get them immediately, even if that means going to clinics outside the VA system. Then let’s fix the systemic problems within the VA so that veterans are receiving timely, top-notch health care.

In response to the revelations of delayed care, I joined my colleagues to help pass the “Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act.” This bill would require the VA to pay for veterans to get care at private health clinics if they have faced extensive wait times or live more than forty miles from a VA medical facility. The bill also starts changing the internal structure of the VA by giving the Secretary of the VA authority to fire managers who aren’t doing their jobs, and suspends bonuses for all VA employees for the next two years.

This bill was a good start, but it is just that – only the beginning.

Fixing the poor service delivered by the VA goes beyond just increasing funding. Congress has consistently increased VA funding for medical services each year, but we’re still left with Southwest Washington veterans waiting 80 days for an appointment. We need a culture change within the VA that incorporates transparency, accountability and make veterans the top priority. As a member of the U.S. House Appropriations Committee that determines federal spending levels, I’ll hold VA leadership accountable for making this change.

Take the VA’s taxpayer-funded “mobile medical units” that are supposed to provide prescriptions, flu shots, and basic health services to veterans in rural areas. My office had been requesting the Puget Sound mobile medical unit visit Southwest Washington for three years, but had only been given vague excuses. I fought for legislation demanding an objective report on the entire mobile medical unit program, and the results were worse than I imagined: the VA didn’t know how many mobile medical units they owned, how many veterans they had helped, or their operating costs. Some units sit unused 25 days each month. It’s clear that the VA could be better utilizing the resources it already possesses.

I won’t rest until vets have access to the care they have earned. I’m committed to working with my colleagues from both parties to bring the VA up to the standard that our veterans deserve. Let’s start with getting care to those who have been waiting, and then work to improve quality and access for current veterans and those who have yet to return from service. We owe them no less.

If you are a veteran who is having trouble accessing your benefits, my office is here to help. Please call (360) 695-6292 or visit my website JHB.House.Gov.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., represents Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.