The proposed bipartisan deal to allocate $17 billion to the VA to address patient access is a good start. I have to acknowledge the work of Senator Sanders and Representative Miller to bring a solution from a severely divided Congress. The fact that this proposal is being tabled is a minor miracle. During the press briefing, they both made this point clear with Senator Sanders going as far as saying that this Congress is dysfunctional. I wish them much luck as they seek to gather votes to pass this legislation. The price tag is a sticking point with the GOP and Rep. Miller will have to use the power of salesmanship to get the votes needed to pass it.
This was a tough sell to a Congress that has fulfilled VA funding requests for years to find an agency in complete disarray. The fact is, the VA has never been properly funded because the agency has never been truthful. I think the Senate and House committees have come to that conclusion after having to resort to subpoenas to get information from the agency. Approving Robert Mcdonald's nomination and increasing Congressional oversight should give Congress the confidence needed to pass the bill and assure that funds are properly allocated by the VA.
The bill was not being advertised as a cure all and that is appropriate. What the bill really addresses is the shortage of clinical staff. It will allow the VA to hire staff and allow veterans to seek care out of the VA network which should alleviate the atrocious wait times at VA facilities. Most importantly, it shows a commitment to fix the VA rather than dismantle it. This should stop the calls to privatize the VA which would end up being a much more expensive solution in the long run.
One thing that Senator Sanders said during the press conference really stood out for me. He said that legislation alone will not fix the culture of the VA. That is up to the leadership of the agency itself. What the legislation really does is give the incoming Secretary the tools needed to address immediate problems in the health care system including a fair dismissal policy and the ability to create incentives for VA employees. While some are balking at the possibility of giving bonuses at a broken agency, the reality is that those incentives will be needed to really fix the situation. It also recognizes that there are good employees at the VA who do try to help veterans and they should be rewarded.
These short term solutions are warranted but, veterans want to see long term solutions that produce a VA that actually works for the veteran. To regain the trust of veterans, there is much more work to be done. The manipulation of data in the VHA and VBA must be addressed. Veterans have suffered and died because the metrics used to measure performance by VA employees have reduced veterans to a number or a file. The VA must remind employees that they are dealing with people not case numbers.
The VA must also change their attitude towards veterans claims. The claims process assumes that the veteran is lying and places the burden of proof squarely on the veteran's shoulders. In contrast, when someone files their taxes with the IRS it is assumed that the filer is truthful and an audit, if needed takes place after the IRS proves it is needed. In a VA claim process, the audit comes first and the VA exercises minimal due diligence to prove the claim. In fact, the bulk of their work goes into disproving the claim. The fact that many of these claims go on to be approved as appeals shows the glaring fault in this system. The process needs to be streamlined and the VA should be assisting claimants not hindering them. To put it into perspective, Sloan Gibson, the acting Secretary, submitted a two page request to the joint committee for billions of dollars of funding and was lambasted by the membership. A claimant has to submit reams of information to the VA and may still not get a decision due to lack of information.
Which brings us to the major problem at the VA. Lack of integrity. The agency touts a 90 percent accuracy in rating claims. The Office of the Inspector General tells us that the regional offices that have been inspected have shown error rates from 20 to 30 percent consistently. Clearly, someone is lying and I am inclined to believe that it is the VA. Congress and the American people cannot trust the VA to be truthful given this information. The VA must be made to give Congress and veterans the truth. No measures will work if the VA is still allowed to provide inaccurate statistics. No amount of money or legislation will fix the VA as long as they are lying to themselves and the American people. In short, to win the trust of veterans, the lies have to stop now.
Mark Rogers is a citizen of the Montaukett and Matinecock Nations located in Long Island, New York, where he is known as Toyupahs Cuyahnu (Crazy Turtle). He has served as a grassroots activist in the African American and Native communities and is a proud veteran NCO of the U.S. Army Reserves Medical Corps. He is presently working on a writing career and seeks to aid fellow veterans through his writing. See his Facebook page Toyupahs Cuyahnu/Mark Rogers for more of his writing.