Making the VA Work for South Jersey's Veterans

May 24, 2015

“We owe this freedom of choice and action to those men and women in uniform who have served this nation and its interests in time of need. In particular, we are forever indebted to those who have given their lives that we might be free.” ~ Ronald Reagan, May 26, 1983.

In 1983 President Reagan marked Memorial Day with these words. Thirty-two years later, the nation’s debt has yet to be paid. Recent headlines underscore the widening inability of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to adequately meet the current needs of our veterans or expectations of the American people. There is a growing crisis of confidence in the VA.

It has been one year since President Obama removed VA Secretary Shinseki from his post yet more than 100 facilities across the country continue to be under Congressional and federal investigation, including those serving South Jersey. At the Philadelphia regional benefits office, $2.2 million in overpayments and 30,000 ignored inquiries are being examined. Employee morale has fallen; veterans’ frustration has grown.

With broad bipartisan support, Congress dedicated an additional $16 billion for improved care and empowered the new VA Secretary to fire any personnel responsible for falsified documents and secret wait lists. To date, only one employee was terminated while others were allowed to retire with full benefits, transfer, or received no punishment. In the meantime the number of veterans awaiting care for more than 90 days has nearly doubled.

To be fair, countless veterans continue to value the treatment they receive at VA facilities and most VA personnel treat veterans with the respect and dignity they have undoubtedly earned with prompt, comprehensive care. But the quality and timeliness of care vary between clinics and medical centers, including those serving South Jersey. Too often a change in leadership at our VA facilities results in a change in policy for South Jersey veterans seeking a hardship waiver for non-emergent care at a non-VA facility. Given the lack of a uniform policy and time-consuming process of considering requests on a case-by-case basis, we need to expand veterans’ choices.

I’ve long sought to expand community-based healthcare. Inspired by South Jersey advocates, my approach would create a local pilot program giving each eligible veteran a “Health ID,” enabling them to receive medical care at non-VA facilities. The community clinic or hospital would simply bill the VA. While bipartisan reforms approved last year have helped veterans living far away or experiencing excessive wait times, my legislation removes existing geographical (40 miles) or time (30 days) barriers.

Our veterans have pledged their lives to protect our freedoms. We gather this Memorial Day to honor their service and sacrifice. We should do whatever possible to help South Jersey veterans. If there is a question or concern about VA services, please contact my Mays Landing office at 1-800-471-4450. Our active duty military personnel and veterans have stood up in our defense; it is our obligation to do the same for them.