Veterans Day is an important celebration of service, a time for our nation to honor the men and women who have defended our country to protect the freedoms we hold dear. Since coming to Congress, I have proudly served on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and I take the commitment we’ve made to veterans and their families very seriously. In the aftermath of Vietnam, I experienced firsthand a nation that did not respect the sacrifices made by soldiers who were asked or told to go to war, and I will never allow for our heroes to be treated with such blatant disregard ever again. Our veterans deserve respect, and too often we hear about mistreatment of these men and women by the agency created solely to serve them. There need to be fundamental changes to the way the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) serves our veterans.
Just last month, almost two and a half years after uncovering secret waiting lists that resulted in some veterans dying while waiting for treatment, the VA Inspector General released a report showing that things have not improved. The report revealed veterans are still dying waiting for care at the Phoenix veterans’ hospital. This is outrageous, and further proof of a culture totally lacking in accountability. VA Secretary McDonald often claims that hundreds have been fired since he took over as secretary, and President Obama has echoed this claim, but both the secretary and president are deliberately misleading the American people. In fact, the Washington Post’s fact-checkers looked into these claims after the president’s CNN town hall on September 28 in a piece entitled, “‘Whole Bunch’ of Facts Don’t Support Obama’s Claim That Many VA Bosses Were Fired Over Scandal.” If you ask me, that speaks for itself. The Post found that, despite Congress giving the VA more authority to fire VA executives, the department proposed removals or demotions of somewhere between 12 and 15 senior executives, and only between three and five have been successfully removed. This is beyond infuriating.
As I’ve said before, I know that the vast majority of the men and women who work at VA medical centers and clinics around the country are good, hardworking people whose sole mission is to serve our veterans. But the leadership failures within the VA and the bad actors who have engaged in some truly scandalous conduct threaten to taint the good work of so many.
Since the VA waitlist scandal broke, I’ve joined my colleagues on the committee in working tirelessly to change the culture at the VA and hold these bad actors accountable. I was proud to serve on the conference committee that wrote and negotiated the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, which allowed veterans waiting longer than 30 days to seek care outside the VA system. The bill also gave the VA the authority to fire senior executives who were not meeting performance standards. These were good first steps, but there are still too many veterans waiting for care and not receiving the services they have been promised. As the situation in Phoenix shows, more work is needed.
As part of the Choice Act, Congress created the VA Commission on Care, which was tasked with recommending ways Congress and the administration can make the Veterans Health Administration work better for veterans. The report, released in July, included 18 recommendations to transform the VA. While each recommendation must be carefully considered, overall the Commission’s report provides Congress a unique opportunity to substantively transform the VA into a modern organization that is more focused on the needs of veterans. It’s imperative for Congress to take this opportunity to rethink how the VA can best serve veterans in the 21st Century.
This Veterans Day, let us remember the service and sacrifice of every man and woman who answered the call to serve their country. We need to come together and renew our commitment to keeping our promises to the heroes who bravely kept their promise to us. Change won’t come overnight, but I’m ready to roll up my sleeves, get to work and fight for the changes needed at the VA to ensure our veterans are treated with the respect and gratitude they deserve.Feel free to contact my office if I can be of assistance to you or your family.