This Memorial Day, as we prepare to enjoy spending time with family and friends, let us also remember those who served this country in wars both current and past. Members of our Armed Forces put their lives on the line every day, and we owe it to them to give them the very best care upon their return. Today, that is not happening. It’s time for a new generation of leaders, with a fresh perspective, to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they have earned.
Congress is failing our veterans. As a veteran myself, I see it firsthand. We have never had fewer veterans in Congress in our nation’s history, so it’s not surprising that so few Members of Congress understand the urgency of the problem. We can’t solve these problems overnight, but with the right leadership we can begin to fix the system and give veterans the opportunities they have earned.
There are three things Congress can do to improve how we treat our veterans today:
1. Improve VA health care quality
2. Properly fund the VA to eliminate the claims backlog
3. Expand educational opportunities in the GI Bill
Improve the quality of health care veterans receive at the VA
We’ve seen it in newspaper headlines across the country: The VA is not providing high quality or consistent care to our veterans. It’s an atrocity. I receive my health care from the VA and I am witness to the long waits for appointments, the many bureaucratic hurdles one has to jump through to get a referral, and I know veterans who receive prescription drugs rather than the counseling and care they need.
Congress must act now to ensure top-quality care for all veterans by aggressively investigating care quality in every VA hospital nationwide, and ordering the VA to replace both administrators and physicians who fail to provide our veterans with the care they deserve.
In fact, the bipartisan Putting Veterans Funding First Act of 2013 would have identified and potentially fixed critical problems with our current VA system. Unfortunately, Republican leadership in the House has shelved the bill indefinitely
In Congress, I will work to:
1. Investigate and eliminate all alleged “special waiting lists” as recently found at the Phoenix VA and ensure that all veterans receive equal treatment regardless of where they live and at which VA they receive care;
2. Increase the number of behavioral scientists employed by the DoD and VA systems, expand outreach to ensure that civilian mental health providers accept TRICARE, and provide civilian care options to veterans who can’t receive high-quality care from the VA;
3. Unify DoD and VA electronic records under a single system;
4. Require the DoD and the VA to report annually to Congress on both mental health care impact and overall veterans health care services using well-defined metrics;
5. Oppose cuts to veterans benefits;
6. Fund an overhaul of the VA system through cuts in wasteful spending in the Department of Defense budget.
Provide the VA with necessary funding to eliminate the claims backlog
We did not adequately plan for the war in Iraq. Our failure to plan for how to take care of our returning veterans is appalling. In 2013, the VA claims backlog peaked at an unprecedented 611,000 claims. While the VA has worked diligently to reduce the backlog, we still have more than 300,000 veterans waiting more than 125 days for an appointment. I personally have had to wait months for routine checkups. For veterans with serious injuries, 125 days has meant the difference between life and death.
The Obama Administration has pledged to end the VA claims backlog by 2015, but it will be extremely challenging to meet this deadline without additional resources. Congress should allocate additional funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs specifically targeted to end the backlog, not by hiring more bureaucrats, but by investing in the case-workers necessary to give our veterans the care on which they depend.
Expand education opportunities in the GI Bill
The 1944 GI Bill has been hailed by some as the most productive piece of legislation our country has ever passed. Education is the smartest investment we can make in our future, and that is especially true for veterans.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill has allowed thousands of veterans to pursue an education after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the bill does not go far enough. Veterans are entitled only to benefits up to the cost of the most expensive in-state institution, while select private schools are entitled to matching funds. Congress should amend the Post-9/11 GI Bill to fully fund four years of schooling at any institution. Veterans should have the right to attend any school to which they have been accepted, just as they did in 1946. Allowing our veterans to invest in their future is the smartest dollar we can spend on veterans care.
You can read the full policy paper here.