One of the causes that unite most Americans is the desire to reform the VA-in particular, the healthcare component of the department. Previous presidents have either been unable or unwilling to do the heavy lifting needed to ensure that all veterans receive comprehensive, timely-delivered healthcare. One of President Trump’s bipartisan campaign pledges was to do just that. So far, the president has been sticking to his word when it comes to reforming certain aspects of the VA.
For one thing, the president has been successful at identifying key problems to be targeted in legislation such as the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, which he signed into law several months ago. This bill, in addition to creating an office dedicated to protecting whistleblowers, will prevent VA officials convicted of felonies related to their work from receiving their full annuities and bonuses and will make such employees easier to fire. The president discussed “the nightmare that veterans suffered during the VA scandals that were exposed a few years ago.” He also articulated what prompted him to sign the bill, explaining how “For many years, the government failed to keep its promises to our veterans… [they] were put on secret wait lists, given the wrong medication, given the bad treatments, and ignored in moments of crisis for them. Many veterans died waiting for a simple doctor’s appointment. What happened was a national disgrace, and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls. Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable.”
While only time will tell if the law will be effective in helping veterans, it is reassuring to see him honestly depict the disastrous effects that the VA’s incompetence has had. One wounded veteran, Sgt. Mike Verardo, provided his perspective on the needless pain that the VA is causing countless heroes. He told The Daily Signal in an interview, “When I came home it was incredibly difficult going once a week to the VA trying to get the basic care that I needed.” The article describes the gauntlet that he had to endure, which included waiting to receive a prosthetic leg for 57 days (he was wounded by an IED (improvised explosive device) while he was serving in Afghanistan) and perhaps even more egregiously, he was forced to “make long drives to VA medical centers to verify he had injuries and undergo more than 100 surgeries. He said the doctors were patriotic and cared about veterans, but much of the bureaucracy failed those returning home from war.”
He makes a very important point. We must remember that it is certainly not the healthcare experts who are to blame for failing our veterans, but the government and those in power. That is why the passage of the law was so important. VA secretary David Shulkin has also taken significant steps in the right direction, including “plans that lay the framework for providing emergency mental health coverage to former service members with other-than-honorable (OTH) administrative discharges,” something that none of his predecessors have done.
But there is still much more work to be done if we are to have a VA that we can be proud of. For example, any veteran that was wounded as a result of their service should be entitled to full treatment, regardless of whether they were deployed overseas. That is a distinction that prevents veterans like Henry Mayo Jr., who was drafted by the Army to serve at Alabama’s Fort McClellan, which was later shut down by the EPA for being dangerously contaminated. He had to undergo chemical weapons and radiation tests without any kind of protective suit, resulting in serious disease. The VA denies him coverage simply because they deny the fact that the military poisoned its own soldiers on American soil. Soldiers who were sickened due to exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam do qualify for treatment. The president should absolutely put an end to this injustice, by use of the bully pulpit (to demand a bill from Congress) or an executive order or both. No veteran should be denied coverage because the government refuses to admit its heinous mistakes.
The same could be said about the still unacceptable wait times. It turns out that the VA is lying about “improved” wait times-their information is not to be trusted, according to Debra Draper, the Director of Health Care Investigations at the Government Accountability Office, and Eric Hannel, the former Lead Investigator of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Veterans waited “an average of 61 days for specialized treatment by seven VA medical centers in the Southeast” between April and May of 2016. One specific example is seen with a patient requiring mental healthcare. The VA claims that this patient did not have to wait a single day to receive treatment-however, the VA Inspector General’s report found that the patient had to wait an astounding 120 days. A CNN video shows one veteran’s spouse who was making three medical appointments for her husband. The primary care appointment would be available in weeks, but when it came to appointments with two specialists, a Urologist and an eye-doctor, it was revealed that the waits would be two months and five months, respectively.
If the President is willing to call wait times a “national disgrace,” then surely he should be willing to take time to continue to push for these big problems to be fixed and fixed quickly. Going beyond healthcare, he could also raise awareness among lawmakers to focus on other issues that heavily impact veterans, such as employment and affordable housing, so that veterans without jobs or homes will be able to fully resume their lives. He should also reconsider his uncalled-for ban on transgender recruits, as no able individual who wants to serve should ever be denied the opportunity due to their gender. If we cannot provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to those who serve and sacrifice so much for our country, how can we ever call ourselves “great?” The president and the secretary have made progress to be sure, but the pressure to reform must not be eased if we are to get the results that our veterans need.