Care Report Highlights Need for Changes at VA
Last month the Commission on Care released their final report recommending ways Congress and the administration can make the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) work better for our nation’s veterans. The report was required by the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, a bill I helped negotiate. Throughout the August district work period, I’ve been studying the report and talking with veterans in East Tennessee. While many are pleased with the care they’ve received through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), it’s clear there is still much work to do to make timely and quality care accessible to all veterans who receive their care through the VA.
The Commission’s report included 18 recommendations, some of which I agree with, others I am not sure about. One thing is clear: the VA needs to undergo dramatic changes to effectively serve our growing veteran population. Despite the work we’ve done in Congress, there are still far too many veterans struggling to get in to see a doctor. While there are many challenges, I can tell you one thing: it’s not because of a lack of funding. Since I’ve been in Congress we’ve increased funding for the VA by nearly 83 percent, from $90 billion in Fiscal Year 2008 to $165 billion in FY 16, so I’m confident the VA has the funding needed to serve veterans. The problem is too much waste, bureaucracy and mismanagement within the system, and our veterans are paying the price.
I was glad to see the first recommendation was to establish a high-performing, integrated community-based health care network. This is a commonsense step that I believe could address a lot of the problems we’re seeing within the VHA. It’s simple: if a veteran cannot receive the services they need at their local VA clinic or hospital, they should have the option to easily access preferred providers outside the VA system. This was one of the goals of the Choice Act, but more work needs to be done to create a network of providers to give veterans more choices. Patients who are satisfied with their care can continue to receive VA care, but veterans whose needs aren’t being met will have new options that meet their specific needs.
Another recommendation I strongly agree with is “to require leaders at all levels within the VA to champion a focused, clear benchmarked strategy to transform VHA culture and sustain staff engagement.” When you walk into a VA clinic or hospital and talk to patients, it quickly becomes clear that veteran and staff satisfaction is directly connected to the management at that facility. When a VA health care facility has a director who strives to provide quality, timely care to veterans and works to keep VA staff morale high, many of the mismanagement and satisfaction issues you hear about seemingly disappear. I’ve said this many, many times, but I truly believe the vast majority of VA employees are good, honest, hardworking people who go to work every day with the intention of serving our veterans. I know some of the employees personally, and we’re fortunate to have many of them working right in the First District at Mountain Home.
I also agreed with the report’s recommendation to create a personnel system to govern all VHA employees that is easy to administer. I believe this should include a simple, fair process for employees to report wrongdoing without worry of retaliation. Similarly, every VHA employee should have a clear description of their position and responsibilities. How can we expect a system to work for veterans when there’s not an efficient personnel system? As a Congressman and an OBGYN who ran my own practice, I know that my employees – both in my Congressional offices and in my practice - would not be successful if there weren’t clear expectations and policies.
When Congress returns in September, I look forward to reviewing this report through House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings. One reason I’ve always enjoyed serving on the VA Committee, aside from fighting for our heroes, is that it’s one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress. We all roll up our sleeves to try to make the VA work better for veterans, and I hope the commission’s report will provide a bipartisan framework for the reforms VA needs. This work will continue in the fall, and you can rest assured I will work until every veteran in this country has access to the resources and services they need. It’s going to be a long, hard process, but I can think of no greater duty than to make sure our government keeps the promises we’ve made to the men and women who risked everything to keep us safe and free.