CARING FOR OUR HEROES IN THE 21ST CENTURY ACT: THE REFORM VA NEEDS
By Shaun Rieley
Just over two years have passed since it was revealed that numerous veterans died waiting for care on secret VA hospital waiting lists that had been intentionally manipulated, resulting in the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. In the wake of that scandal, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, which took steps toward providing veterans with access and choice that are the hallmarks of good health care, and toward improving accountability for VA employees.
These reforms were a step in the right direction, but in the years since they were enacted, implementation of the Choice Program has proven less than satisfactory, and it has become clear that the accountability measures have failed to hold accountable many problematic VA employees. This is because the reforms failed to address certain systemic and structural issues in VA that serve to perpetuate a toxic culture which results, all too often, in failure to take care of the veterans that it exists to serve.
In fact, the independent assessment of VA care, mandated by the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, found that true reform would require “no less than a system-wide reworking.”
Congress will now have the opportunity to bring those changes. U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) has released a discussion draft of the Caring for Our Heroes in the 21st Century Act—legislation which would comprehensively overhaul the Veterans Health Administration.
Rep. McMorris Rodgers’ bill seeks to go to the root of the problems. It restructures VA, shifting the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) to governance by a board of directors, allowing it to be run like a high-performance health care organization, rather than as a government bureaucracy, improving both accountability and access, while allowing the system to right-size itself, which is projected to save money over the long term.
Furthermore, it allows veterans increased choice on both private health care and VA providers. Thus allowing veterans who are satisfied with their care at VA to remain in the system with no cost-sharing, and those who prefer to leverage the resources in their local community can do so, while receiving premium support to help cover costs.
Despite the often-repeated assertion that VA’s problems stem from a lack of money, the VA budget has grown precipitously over the past decade. Yet, VA’s problems continue. Clearly increasing VA’s budget has not appreciably improved outcomes.
The plan is bold and real reform is never easy—even when it is clearly needed. But to provide veterans with the best care possible—care that they have earned through their service and sacrifice—we will need to think beyond the tired talking points and failed status quo. Honoring veterans means asking the hard questions and doing the right thing, even when it is difficult.