As a retired U.S. Army veteran who is 30 percent disabled, I use the Veterans Affairs health care system for my service-connected needs. I’ve found that my doctor and the staff are compassionate and do a good job for me.
But as a former member of the state House of Representatives, where I chaired the Veterans and Military Affairs Subcommittee and as the Florida coalitions director of Concerned Veterans for America, I hear from veterans all over the Sunshine State who have had a different experience.
Recently, Tampa’s WFLA-Ch. 8 investigated several stories about veterans not getting the care they earned. I hear similar stories, from veterans who have had appointments canceled, delayed or moved, and from those who can’t get the care they need at all. It bothers me because I believe every veteran deserves the same level of care that I get.
In February, the Veterans Affairs secretary revealed that approximately 19.7 million appointments had been canceled, delayed or moved since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is in direct contravention of the VA Mission Act, which includes a provision “ensuring that covered veterans do not experience a lapse in care resulting from errors or delays by the department or its contractors or an unusual or excessive burden in accessing hospital care, medical services, or extended care services.”
We have been down this road before. The 2014 Phoenix VA scandal resulted in veterans dying for lack of timely care. We must not repeat that mistake.
We also must not accept the excuse that care is justifiably delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the VA has cited as a reason for scaling back community care.
Well before there were obvious problems at the VA due to COVID-19, Concerned Veterans for America was calling for a better utilization and implementation of the VA Mission Act’s community care program. We sent a set of policy recommendations to President Donald Trump and then-VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in March 2020 that would have ensured veterans maintained access to health care services and positioned the VA to utilize its resources to meet the dynamic needs of veterans as the coronavirus pandemic took off.
Despite our efforts and those of some members of Congress, the VA did not change course.
So the problems we are seeing now, like those that plagued the VA seven years ago, were predicted and preventable.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The VA health system is filled with dedicated doctors, nurses, and other providers. I testified in the Florida House about the advances the VA has made in tele-health. But celebrating the successes does not mean we can afford to ignore the problems.
The VA Mission Act was supposed to implement a better process, but still there seems to be no accountability. Veterans are met with lost appointments, low-quality facilities and life-threatening delays in care, while those in authority in Washington plod along practicing business as usual.
For these problems to be fixed, we need to hold our elected leaders accountable, demand that the VA follow the law, and provide veterans the health care they earned in a quality VA facility or in the communities in which they live.
Jimmie T. Smith is Florida coalition director of Concerned Veterans for America. He is retired from the U.S. Army, a former Republican state representative and former Citrus County commissioner.