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Tuesday, Apr 22, 2014
Commentary

Holding the VA accountable


Published:

The average veteran waits close to nine months to learn whether they'll receive the benefits they've earned and the care they need from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

This process of repeated delays and denials is just one of many examples of a failed veterans support network that, despite consistent increases in budgets and personnel, is failing to keep our nation's promise to serve those who served our nation.

So how do some in Washington propose responding to this failure? Incredibly, they now propose vastly expanding the VA's responsibilities - thereby ensuring the ultimate collapse of an already dysfunctional system.

That's the reality of a new veterans' services omnibus bill, the Comprehensive Veterans Health and Benefits and Military Retirement Pay Restoration Act of 2014, a $30 billion package introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

Sanders' bill, though probably well intended, reflects a typical weakness of Washington thinking: Instead of defining success based on results, it seeks to throw money at the problem.

Over the past 12 years the VA budget has grown by more than $104 billion - including a nearly 58 percent increase since 2009, according to VA's own accounting.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has gone on record admitting that money is not the problem so the answer is not more spending. In reality, supporting America's veterans requires more than endless spending, which only adds to the massive deficits that represent one of the greatest threats to our national security.

Supporting America's veterans requires effective leadership and accountability. In other words, the VA has a failing foundation, so let's fix the foundation before we add the window dressing.

How can we do it? First, making good on the government's promise to our veterans by restoring the recent cuts to military pensions was a start. Last week, legislation overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate to repeal the $6 billion cut to military pensions. Congress did the right thing in addressing this issue.

Second, stop adding layers of bureaucracy that only create more obstacles and red tape between veterans and the care they deserve.

Why are we creating new "veterans jobs programs" when there are already six of those? The unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans continues to hover above the national average, suggesting that these programs are less effective than advertised.

Bureaucratic complexity is a large part of the reason for the VA's travails. The system is already so complicated that veterans must consult textbooks and advisers just to learn what resources are available and how to access them, often leaving them frustrated and lost in the maze of bureaucracy. Expanding the menu of services and programs will only compound that problem.

Third, don't flood a broken system with millions of new users. Although all veterans deserve the care they've earned through honorable service, the Sanders omnibus bill will enable any veteran, regardless of disability status, to immediately enroll in the VA health care system. Estimates suggest this will add more than 15 million veterans to a system that cannot support a population one-third that size.

With unprecedented wait times for essential treatment threatening the lives of many of our nation's ill and injured veterans, why would we add this additional overwhelming burden that will certainly increase delays in essential care even further? Recent investigations have shed light on the extent of this problem - with veterans dying before receiving routine and emergency care. Again, expanding access beyond veterans with service-connected conditions will only add to the VA's worries.

Although the problem is complicated, the answer is simple. No more money for a bloated, broken system, and no new obstacles that will reduce access to care even further.

Instead, we must focus on outcomes and encourage accountability.

Our leaders in Congress must hold the VA accountable to its mission to serve our nation's veterans. They've earned it; we've paid for it. Now let's deliver it.

James Ferguson is a retired Marine Corps officer from Alexandria, Va., and a member of Concerned Veterans for America.

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