Monday marked a significant day in Washington politics, when self-proclaimed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and longtime conservative veteran supporter Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) reached a compromise on the issue of veteran health care. With only one week left before the looming August recess, lawmakers struck a deal. Two days later, the $17 billion VA reform bill passed the House 420-5. But sadly this legislation doesn’t go far enough to address the real problems in our Veterans’ Affairs health system.
The bill would allow veterans to have private healthcare options under certain conditions and would allow for the firing or demotion of Senior Executive Service (SES) employees who are not performing to standard. These are positive changes, but this proposed legislation is not a cure-all for the plagued VA system.
First, veterans would have the option to seek private healthcare if the VA is unable to provide an appointment within 30 days, or if the veteran lives greater than 40 miles from the nearest VA medical facility. Veterans would be provided a “Veterans’ Choice Card” that would allow them to receive medical care at the expense of the VA.
$10 billion of the $17 billion allotted in this bill would go to a fund called the “Veterans Choice Fund” that would cover the payments of the private healthcare costs. This is a crucial part of the VA reform bill. Obviously, veterans deserve a better option when the VA cannot provide medical care in a timely manner or within a reasonable distance.
Second, the bill would allow the VA to have the authority to fire top-level SES employees if they are failing to meet the standard of the job or are participating in any form of misconduct. Currently, it is almost impossible to fire or demote people in these SES positions. This is not just a VA issue, but a problem in any federal agency.
If an SES employee gets demoted or fired, he has the option of a 21-day appeals process. If a decision is not made within the allotted 21-day time period, the initial recommendation of employment termination or demotion is approved. This is a much-needed change that will help bring an accountability culture back to the VA.
While both of these measures are steps in the right direction, the Sanders-Miller deal does not do enough to address how the overall VA culture is going to change. How is the VA going to become more transparent to prevent gaming the system, secret wait lists, ghost clinics, and retaliation against whistleblowers? This latest bill could be yet another short-term “solution” to a long-term problem of veterans’ access to health care.
A real solution would offer private healthcare options to veterans without stipulations, but this bill imposes many limitations: Private options will only be available under certain circumstances, and only to veterans who are enrolled in the VA healthcare system by August 1, 2014 or a veteran who will separate from service in the future (after August 1, 2014). This leaves out any veteran who has chosen previously to avoid the failures and frustrations of the VA.
And Friday’s enrollment deadline is almost a joke: Can the bureaucracy at the VA possibly process any paperwork by then? This leaves almost no time to inform current veterans of the change. (Compare that to ObamaCare enrollment deadlines, which were consistently delayed in efforts to enroll more people in coverage. Apparently, our vets don’t get that privilege.)
If the goal of this bill is to provide the best care for veterans, why does that only apply to certain veterans? Why punish those vets who refused to use the VA in the past (possibly for justified fears of bad treatment)? This bill is just another way to protect the VA bureaucracy and deny veterans from receiving the best care without extensive wait times.
Furthermore, this bill makes the common government-minded mistake of simply throwing money ($17 billion) at the problem. The VA has never had a funding problem; it has seen an increase in funding of almost 60 percent since 2009. No amount of money given to the VA will solve its problems without a clearly defined strategy to change the structure and culture of the program.
It is refreshing to see members of Congress working together and having the ability to compromise, but this bill is clearly an attempt to smooth over a recent set of scandals with policy tweaks. Veterans would be better served by real, meaningful reforms. We must get VA reform right once and for all, rather than turning our backs on a system that will continue to fail our nation’s veterans.
Barno is a military fellow at the Independent Women's Voice and a former U.S. Army chopper pilot.