The agreement between the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees on a plan to fix the veterans’ health program might be a signal of progress. We hope.
One thing is certain: Any effort to chip away at a dysfunctional system that is leaving our veterans without proper care – or, in some sad cases, none at all – demands immediate and bipartisan action.
So far, what we have are two developments:
• Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are touting a compromise plan to improve veterans’ care. An outline of the draft reportedly shows the conference committee will provide the VA with $17 billion.
• And on Tuesday, the Senate unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble chief Robert McDonald to head the Department of Veterans Affairs. He will have his hands full.
The bipartisan funding bill is likely to go to the floor of the House and Senate for passage soon. It sets aside $10 billion to pay for outside care for veterans who otherwise would have to endure long wait times if they wanted treatment at a VA facility. And it includes $5 million for additional doctors and nurses at VA facilities and $2 billion for new health facilities and other purposes.
A substantial amount of the funding will be used to help veterans who continue to wait more than 30 days for an appointment or who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. The idea is to help them access care from a non-VA physician. Rural veterans will also be helped by extension of a program to get them local care.
Besides much-needed funding is the power the VA secretary will have in firing senior executives in the department.
Like all compromises, no one got everything he wanted. Sanders wanted up to $25 billion in funding for the VA and Miller campaigned for no more than $10 billion. And last week, Sloan Gibson, then the acting VA secretary, insisted his department needed more than $17 billion over the next three years.
The bottom line is whether veterans will get the necessary care they need and deserve. So far, that hasn’t been the case. The scandal that ripped through the department earlier this year resulted in well-deserved criticism and the forced resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in late May. Among the intolerable problems were reports of patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and overwhelming evidence of workers falsifying or omitting appointment schedules to hide the fact that veterans were not being properly served. And reports of other failures to care for veterans kept rushing in.
Moreover, the VA will have to report to Congress on planned improvements to aged appointment-scheduling software. Perhaps symbolic of the entire agency problem, the software hasn’t been substantially improved since the 1980s.
It will be a large task, but McDonald appears to be suited for the job. “The seriousness of the moment demands urgent action,” he said at his confirmation hearing. “The VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is a lot of work to do to transform the department, and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved.”
Nothing less should be tolerated.