It's been four years since the Phoenix VA scandal exposed extensive wait lists at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities nationwide. Not enough has changed.
After the scandal, Congress passed the Veterans Choice Program, which gave veterans more access to community care but used mileage and wait time standards to decide who had access to choice. Though well-intentioned, the Choice Program failed veterans because of arbitrary criteria by which vets could access the program and mismanaged implementation. As a result, veterans face extensive wait times, long drives to VA facilities and inadequate care.
Fortunately, the VA MISSION Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump on June 6, will go a long way toward ensuring our veterans finally receive the care they deserve.
The bill garnered support from the VA, lawmakers of both parties, the White House and veterans groups like Concerned Veterans for America. The VA MISSION Act ensures more veterans have access to community care options and begins modernizing the VA for future generations of veterans. It's a common-sense piece of legislation that will streamline processes, strengthen the VA and empower veterans with choice over their health care.
But getting the bill signed into law is only the first step on the road to lasting reform.
The department must clearly define eligibility and access standards for veterans seeking community care. We don't need a repeat of what happened with the Veterans Choice Program, so the VA must take special care to clearly expand access beyond the original criteria and lay out a detailed plan for how it plans to implement all changes.
Merging the multiple community care efforts into one program will streamline access and reduce confusion. Community care is popular among veterans. They want the ability to see a doctor two miles away rather than driving an hour to a VA facility. For those from areas like Phoenix, Tomah, Memphis or Manchester, they want to escape facilities with repeated low-quality ratings or gross mismanagement of patient care.
The VA must also continue to innovate on both delivery of care and processing claims.
The veteran population is quickly changing, but VA care options aren't adapting to fit those changes. Its record systems don't communicate with the Department of Defense's, reimbursements to outside providers are slow, and facilities are quickly aging. The VA MISSION Act creates a Center for Innovation for Care and Payment that should be prioritized to reduce costs while enhancing quality.
The law also mandates a much-needed infrastructure review. VA buildings are 60 years old on average, and as of last year at least 1,100 were vacant or underused, costing the department $25 million a year.
The law creates a commission that will take stock of the VA's buildings and provide recommendations on how to modernize or dispense with the facilities. With about 70 VA buildings dating from the 1800s, such a review is long overdue. The department must ensure the commission is formed and its recommendations are acted on as soon as possible.
For the good of veterans, these reforms must be done on time and on budget - two metrics with which the VA has chronically struggled. The department will need to work with Congress, the White House, veterans' organizations and industry experts to ensure timely compliance with the bill's objectives. Congress and other partners will need to act as watchdogs, tracking important milestones while allowing the best experts to lead the way.
Every day that goes by without these structural reforms is another day veterans have to wait to receive the care they've earned.
By passing the VA MISSION Act, our nation has promised veterans a health care system that allows them to get the care they need, when and where they need it. Now it's time for committed individuals and organizations to partner with the VA and make good on that promise.
Dan Caldwell is executive director of Concerned Veterans for America.