Don't skimp on veterans' care

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2014 - 9:00 PM

Reform package is start, more to work to do at VA.

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A Department of Veterans Affairs facility in the Phoenix area was among those singled out for long wait times for veterans to receive medical care.

Photo: Matt York • Associated Press,

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Those who served our country shouldn’t be standing in line for months for medical care after they arrive back home. With the U.S. Congress moving quickly to approve reforms, the challenge now is to resist the temptation to declare “mission accomplished’’ and move on once the spotlight fades.

Even as the problems that led to shocking wait times at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities are getting fixed, the national scandal that erupted this year over delayed care at locations in Phoenix should continue to be a tragic reminder of what happens when “support the troops” talk isn’t followed by action.

Subsequent scrutiny of VA clinics and hospitals elsewhere revealed that wait times weren’t a problem only in Arizona. Long delays in accessing care appeared to be a systemic deficiency nationally, with a few locations, such as those in Minnesota, appearing to be better-managed.

The package of reforms Congress considered this week is a worthy effort that will improve timely access to medical care for veterans. Key improvements: creating an additional 27 “major new medical facilities” within the VA system and expanding veterans’ access to private doctors.

But the reforms should be seen as a first step toward ensuring that the VA can meet the significant challenges posed by younger generations of veterans now seeking its services. The nation’s lawmakers must continue to scrutinize VA medical facilities to understand their evolving demands and need for resources.

The reform package was one of the last pieces of business taken up this week by the U.S. House and Senate before a break. A deal bridging the differences between versions of VA reforms previously passed by the two chambers was announced Monday by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Florida Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican. The House and Senate must both approve the compromise. The House did so Wednesday by a 420-5 vote. The Senate is expected to take up the measure Thursday.

Fortunately, the common ground forged by Sanders and Millers contains a lot of common sense.

In addition to the 27 new VA medical facilities, the roughly $16.3 billion package would smartly expand access for veterans to private medical doctors, something this page has previously called for. It also would authorize the VA to hire more doctors and nurses, as well as expand loan-repayment incentives for providers who take jobs in the VA system, which are often lower-paying.

In addition, there’s a welcome emphasis on accountability. Widespread reports revealed that managers within the VA system covered up care backlogs. The congressional compromise would allow Robert McDonald, the former Proctor and Gamble executive who is the newly confirmed VA secretary, to move quickly to fire employees responsible for the wait-time fiasco. (Eric Shinseki, the VA’s previous secretary, resigned this summer after the scandal broke.)

The deal announced by Sanders and Miller merits support from the public and the state’s entire congressional delegation. While Minnesotans appear to have been well-served by VA facilities here, their former comrades-in-arms elsewhere deserve quality, accessible care.

The bill is well-crafted and has won support from veterans groups. Nevertheless, it may face objections because of its price tag; the Heritage Foundation was urging congressional representatives to vote against it. The nation does need to rein in spending, but skimping on veterans’ medical care is not an option and is downright disgraceful.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, a veteran, was on the conference committee that hammered out the compromise and has been out front calling for its passage. He has also pointed out the need for continuous improvement.

Among his ideas that merit serious consideration: a quadrennial review system, like that used by the Department of Defense, to evaluate veterans’ needs and to ensure that there’s an overarching strategy to meet them.

Despite the black eye from the wait-list scandal, the VA generally receives high customer satisfaction marks from those it cares for. But a system that admirably has served veterans of wars from the previous century now has a new generation of Iraq and Afghanistan vets as patients.

The VA system must continue to modernize to meet these younger vets’ different and challenging needs. Lawmakers have begun this important work, but there remains heavy-lifting ahead.

  • To learn more

    The U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs has put together an accessible overview of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. To learn how this legislation would improve care access, go to http://tinyurl.com/kg5obdh

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