Americans are empowered when their government works for – not against – them. But as you know, the federal government has faced quite a few scandals as of late, including the IRS targeting scandal, the attack in Benghazi, and the VA scandal. In this week’s policy update, I will discuss the VA scandal and what Congress has done in response to the revelation that some within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hid waiting lists of patients from official records.
Earlier this year, news broke that veterans who had bravely served our country were suffering and even dying because they had been kept on secret waiting lists for extreme periods of time to receive care at VA health care facilities. This was done to make it look as if these facilities were performing at a higher level with shorter wait times, so that the employees could receive performance bonuses in some instances.
The root of the problem was a disconnect between those performing care and the leadership of the department – oftentimes coming from VA supervisors themselves. These supervisors were instructing their subordinates to hide information, so that reports to their own superiors would be more favorably received. Furthermore, oftentimes when the employees spoke out, the supervisors meted out retribution. Finally, a few brave whistleblowers came forward to express their concerns, and Congress and the VA began to take action.
Rewarding VA employees for delaying and denying care for tens of thousands of our veterans is indefensible - our nation owes no greater debt of gratitude than the one we owe them, and these reports highlight minimally a breach of competence and, perhaps, criminal activity within the VA. We need the truth, and I commend my colleagues on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for their dedication to getting to the bottom of this as soon as possible. After some investigation, the House and Senate began developing a plan of accountability to address the needs of our veterans.
The goals for the proposal were to get veterans the care they need when they need it and to make it possible to remove those bad actors within the VA. There were those who argued for veterans to have a greater ability to have their VA benefitscover private care. Still others wanted more funding to go to the VA, so that they could expand rapidly the facilities and personnel needed for timely care. A mix of these two options made it into the agreement between Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairmen Bernie Sanders (Senate) and Jeff Miller (House), and Congress passed the legislation in the last week of session before the August district work period.
The final legislative compromise, the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, was signed into law on August 7, 2014, by President Obama. The law addresses the problems at the VA by allowing veterans to leverage private care to fulfill their health needs, holds high-level employees in the VA accountable for underperformance or corruption, increases congressional oversight through the Congressional Commission on Care, and provides for the hiring of additional medical staff within the VA to increase its ability to care for veterans. I am hopeful this will jumpstart the efforts to get the VA back on track.
I am also hopeful that newly-confirmed Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald will undertake steps to turn around the embattled department from within. In his previous posts, he was known as an innovative thinker, and I am confident he will produce results to deliver quality and timely care to our veterans.
While this legislation and new leadership address problems at the VA on a national level, I know that individual veterans need assistance resolving a problem within the VA from time to time. Should this apply to you or someone you know, please reach out to one of my district offices in Rogers (479-464-0446), Fort Smith (479-424-1146), or Harrison (870-741-6900) so we can do our best to help.
We owe the greatest amount of respect and gratitude to our veterans for their selfless service to our nation – this starts with ensuring they can access the timely and quality care they have earned. I will continue to work with my colleagues to address the systemic issues at the VA and change its culture to fulfill our promise to our veterans.