Getting in the room to see the doctor is the hardest part. That is what I hear most often from the tens of thousands of Central Valley veterans. Long wait times for appointments and lengthy commutes prevent them from accessing the care that they have earned through their service. In Turlock, a veteran looking for specialty care faces a 90 mile journey to the nearest full service Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Palo Alto. This trip is especially difficult for elderly veterans or those with limited financial resources.
Improving access to care for veterans has been a priority of mine since entering office. With my fellow members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs I have worked to increase funding for construction, encouraged the VA to make use of private physicians and supported investing hundreds of millions of dollars in technology improvements designed to raise the efficiency and quality of VA healthcare.
Here at home, my staff stays busy working daily with Central Valley veterans to help them navigate the VA bureaucracy and receive the benefits they deserve. I was proud to secure two new transport vans for our local VA centers to help veterans get to and from their appointments and ease their burdens.
Unfortunately, veterans are still waiting too long for care and some have lost their lives while waiting for the VA. In certain VA medical centers, the problems went beyond bureaucratic inertia to the point where deliberate fraud on the part of administrators prevented veterans from getting urgent medical care. At these locations, secret wait lists were utilized to hide from Congress and the American people the failure of the VA to see patients in a timely fashion. Where this fraud has been uncovered, I fully expect criminal prosecution for those responsible.
While additional resources are critical, they will not truly solve problems unless there are deep institutional reforms in the department.
That is why I am so pleased that the President signed H.R. 3230, the Veterans Access to Care through Choice and Accountability Act of 2014. The bill gives the Secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to fire senior executives at the VA who are not performing, removing the culture of impunity that reigns within the Department. The legislation also gives veterans increased access to private providers outside the VA system. While this was an option before, receiving approval from the VA was too difficult. Going forward a veteran who lives more than 40 miles from a VA facility or would wait longer than 30 days for an appointment is eligible to receive care from a healthcare provider right in their own community.
The signing of this bill is just the first step. Implementing it effectively will take steadfast dedication to serving our vets. The hardest work is just beginning as the VA works to implement these changes, and Congress’s oversight mission isn’t over. I don’t want to see long wait times, secret lists, or waiting lists at all. It’s time to eliminate the backlog and bring real reform to the VA, which H.R. 3230 intends to do.
I assure you that the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee will be conducting vigorous oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs to verify that they are properly utilizing the extraordinary level of funding contained in the legislation. Committee members have already tasked the Government Accountability Office to perform regular investigations into the status of the reforms contained in the bill.
It is up to the Department of Veterans Affairs under new leadership of recently appointed Secretary Bob McDonald to restore the trust of our veterans in the healthcare system. The charge of the Department is clear: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” I will be watching closely to ensure that mission is met.
Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, represents the 10th Congressional District, which includes all of Stanislaus County and southern San Joaquin County, and served in the U.S. Air Force for 16 years.