By U.S. Representative Bradley Byrne (A-1)
Earlier this year, our eyes were opened to an alarming crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). We were shocked to learn that veterans were being placed on secret waiting lists and thousands of veterans were experiencing wait times of more than 90 days for medical care. Even worse, many veterans never received care at all.
As soon as these problems became public, the American people demanded that accountability be restored and the problems fixed. In the House of Representatives, we set out to tackle the VA crisis head on. I immediately pointed out that the culture of complacency at the VA could not be changed overnight, but there were some obvious places to start.
First, those involved in these deceitful tactics had to be investigated and held accountable. The first major move in the right direction was the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Secretary Shinseki served our nation admirably, but his leadership at the VA was clearly failing. The VA Inspector General and Congress also launched independent investigations and audits to get to the root of the problem.
Second, I joined a number of my colleagues in the House to urge for greater focus on health care options that allow veterans to seek care from private doctors and specialists outside the VA system. Severe backlogs and extreme distances to VA facilities under the previous system were forcing many veterans to simply go without care, leaving them helplessly stranded.
I’m pleased to report that just last week President Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 into law. I had proudly supported the bill just a week earlier when it passed the House of Representatives 420 to 5. The bill addresses a number of problems at the VA by ensuring strong accountability measures are in place and requiring the VA to expand non-VA care to any veteran who lives more than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility or who experiences wait times of more than 30 days.
Specifically, the bill makes it easier to fire or demote senior-level VA officials who before had been protected by outrageous federal laws. Federal bureaucracy and labor unions shouldn’t stand in the way of holding those responsible for these egregious acts accountable. The bill went even further by reducing the amount available for bonuses to VA employees. Many reports indicated that VA employees were manipulating wait times in order to receive performance bonuses, and that practice must stop.
Most important to Southwest Alabama, this bill means that our veterans no longer will have to travel hours out of the way to receive medical attention from the VA hospitals in Biloxi or Montgomery. Instead, under most circumstances, our local veterans can now choose to visit a specialist or hospital of their choosing close to home. I cannot overstate how much this freedom of choice will mean to our veterans.
I know this bill won’t solve every problem at the VA, but it is certainly a major step in the right direction. I will continue working with new VA Secretary Robert McDonald, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, and all my colleagues in the House to ensure that our nation’s veterans receive the best care possible.
Ultimately, the federal government should be working for our nation’s veterans, not against them.