With the nation watching, President Trump used his first State of the Union speech to remind the public that important work remains to improve veterans’ healthcare. Specifically, Trump highlighted the need for veterans to have healthcare choices outside of VA medical facilities.
The president’s comments will hopefully jump-start congressional negotiations over legislation reforming the VA’s choice and community care programs that stalled at the end of 2017. This comes on the heels of a series of policy recommendations from Trump to the House and Senate that urge Congress to adopt clearer standards for when and where a veteran can access care outside of the VA. These recommendations should be advanced in legislation that will expand healthcare choice for veterans at the VA and prevent VA bureaucrats from blocking veterans from receiving care outside of the VA.
The nudge is needed because, despite nearing the four-year anniversary of the Phoenix VA scandal that exposed gross negligence and misconduct at the VA, there are still reports that veterans are not receiving the adequate care they deserve.
In the last year, some important steps have been taken to reform and fix the VA. As the president reminded us last week, federal employees derelict in their responsibility to care for our veterans are being fired much more rapidly due to the passage of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. Additionally, the VA has started to publicly release more data about its performance compared to the private sector – which is a critical tool in helping veterans make the proper decisions about their healthcare.
But there is still much more to be done.
Since the VA wait-list scandal broke in 2014, Congress has been struggling to pass a more permanent and far-reaching fix to improve the way we deliver care to our veterans. Instead, the VA has been subjected to a series of temporary measures that contain bureaucratic restrictions that make it nearly impossible for veterans to access care outside of the VA when they want to.
That’s the opposite of what the president called for when he endorsed giving veterans more “choice in their healthcare decisions.” To provide more choice, Congress will need to embrace the administration’s recommendations establishing clearer eligibility guidelines for veterans looking to receive care outside of the VA system.
Additionally, the White House is asking lawmakers to steer clear of imposing hiring quotas in VA facilities. We know that increasing VA personnel is the wrong way to improve veteran care, because we can look at the effects of legislation passed in the wake of the Phoenix VA scandal.
A recent National Public Radio report found that even after an influx of nearly $16 billion as part of the Veterans Choice and Accountability Act of 2014, poor decisions (including distributing personnel unevenly and failing to rein in the bureaucracy) meant that increased resources did little to reduce wait times and improve care.
The White House is right to ask for fiscal responsibility this time around — it’s not about penny-pinching, it’s about making sure resources are actually used to care for the brave men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedoms.
There are a number of common-sense proposals out there, including one by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., that would shore up and consolidate the VA’s existing outside care programs while setting the stage for bolder reforms giving veterans greater control over their own care.
Congress owes it to our veterans to ignore special interests in Washington, D.C. who want to preserve the status quo at the VA. It must act decisively to send to the president’s desk a bill that empowers veterans with more control over their healthcare.
The White House has provided lawmakers with a good blueprint. The time for Congress to act is now.
Dan Caldwell (@dandcaldwell) is the executive director for Concerned Veterans for America.
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