The nearly $17 billion federal plan to overhaul the Department of Veteran's Affairs that President Barack Obama signed into law last week is a solid step toward turning around an agency plagued by scandal and inadequate treatment of veterans. The effort is designed to reduce patient wait times, hire more doctors and nurses and open additional VA medical facilities around the county. Along with the unanimous confirmation of new VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the deal puts veterans first and begins the long process of providing efficient service to patients and restoring accountability to the troubled agency.
The Veterans Access Choice and Accountability Act allocates $10 billion to ensure that veterans are seen quickly by doctors. It allows veterans who live more than 40 miles away from a VA medical center or who have been on a waiting list for longer than 30 days to seek treatment from a non-VA facility. The bill also set aside $5 billion to hire more doctors and nurses and another $1.5 billion to open 27 major medical centers throughout the country, including up to $11.9 million for a facility in New Port Richey.
The legislation was created in response to a scandal that rocked the VA last spring when records revealed that the agency failed to provide doctor's appointments to veterans in a timely fashion. Nationwide some 57,000 veterans waited more than 90 days to see a doctor. Some died before being seen. To conceal slipshod practices and lengthy waiting lists, VA workers created fake appointments for veterans. When veterans didn't show up, their appointments were rescheduled and the waiting began again.
The compromise is not perfect, and there is plenty of room for improvement down the road. But for now, VA leaders should ensure that patients who need specialty care from VA doctors are not shunted off to private physicians who lack the expertise to treat complex military service-related conditions. They must make sure veterans don't get lost in a private system meant to serve as a temporary stopgap measure while the VA increases its offerings. The legislation also doesn't address the antiquated computer scheduling system at the heart of the waiting list scandal. And it institutes a provision that makes it easier to fire senior level executives for poor performance that offers possibilities for both reforms and abuses.
Congress acted in a bipartisan way to address the VA's systemic problems, but its work is not done. The compromise agreement is $1 billion short of what VA leadership said was needed to revamp the agency. Congress should find the money to close the gap and remain committed to closely monitoring the VA as it implements the new legislation. Veterans, who have earned their government health benefits because of their service to the nation, deserve nothing less.