The overwhelming majority of veterans are proud to receive medical care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And rightfully so. VA hospitals such as the C.W. Bill Young Medical Center and the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital are staffed by skilled, caring professionals dedicated each day to helping those who have served our nation in uniform.
But today, there’s a historic crisis within parts of the Veterans Health Administration. Long wait times for health care have resulted in the deaths of veterans. Deaths. And some VA personnel actions have resulted in the initiation of an FBI criminal investigation.
On Tuesday, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., I will host a Veterans Intake Clinic at my office at 9210 113th St. in Seminole to hear directly from veterans regarding their experience with wait lists and the quality of service they receive at our local VA facilities — concerns and compliments. No appointment is necessary.
Each veteran, but also each American and each member of Congress, demands and deserves from the VA an immediate solution to clear the wait lists now.
The good news is we are starting to see action and urgency from the VA.
Although I believe the administration of President Obama did not act swiftly enough, under the guidance of newly appointed acting secretary Sloan Gibson, 50,000 veterans awaiting care have been contacted by the VA to expedite appointments, and the department is in the process of contacting another 40,000.
Additionally, through reforms provided by Congress and the administration, if the VA cannot provide timely care to veterans at VA facilities, these veterans will soon have expanded options to seek care from private-sector doctors and medical providers.
Bonuses for some VA employees have been frozen for two years to free up roughly $800 million that will be used to pay private medical providers to help alleviate the VA patient backlog. And, provided the president concurs with recent legislation passed by Congress, senior VA management responsible for the recent crisis will be held accountable and terminated.
In my opinion, these urgent actions alone do not sufficiently address the long-term reforms that will be required to ensure this never happens again. The VA needs cultural reform to address what one senior administration official recently referred to as a failure of integrity by regional leadership. The VA needs dramatically better financial management. And the VA needs to inject the management efficiency we expect from leading private sector medical providers.
Despite what some opinion leaders and the press have suggested, the crisis was absolutely not created by funding levels for the department. In less than 10 years, the VA’s budget has grown from $73.1 billion to $139.1 billion — an increase of 90 percent. And it’s scheduled to grow even more. But during the same period the patient load has increased by just 16 percent.
Additionally, Congress has provided over $1 billion to the VA for information technology upgrades, yet the department still operates on a scheduling system that is based on technology from 1985.
In 1985, Ronald Reagan was president, the Internet did not exist, household personal computers did not exist, voice mail did not exist and cellphones did not commonly exist. Yet the VA retains its 1985 electronic scheduling system with very little modification. In fact, when members of my staff recently visited the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center to examine how appointments are made, it was confirmed that the computerized scheduling system is more than 20 years old.
It is time the VA gets with the times.
Veterans deserve more. After clearing the wait list, the administration and Congress simply must enact historic broad-based institutional reforms that maintain the integrity of the VA health-care system that veterans want and deserve but also install new efficiencies, such as expanded non-VA medical care to veterans, expanded private sector management of VA facilities, streamlined employment rules that hold employees accountable for malfeasance, and budget reforms that focus limited resources on the delivery of health care instead of continued bureaucratic negligence.
The C.W. Bill Young and James A. Haley VA Medical Centers each have a rich legacy of providing quality care to those who have carried our flag. The demands for reform that Congress makes of the administration today are to ensure this legacy of care continues.
It is not a political fight, nor should it ever be. But it is a fight of conviction for everyone who believes that those who rushed to the front lines to defend our nation should not now be sent to the back of the line to receive the medical care they have rightfully earned and now richly deserve.
David Jolly, R-Indian Shores, represents the 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.