The anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks is an unmistakable reminder of just how fragile freedom is. Each American citizen has a role in defending it, but the most obvious burden goes to millions who’ve served in our armed forces. Unfortunately, our nation too often fails in its responsibility to support them when they return from the fight.

Although last year’s VA hospital scandal should’ve been a turning point, there’s still a rotten culture at work within the Department of Veterans Affairs bureaucracy — a culture that encourages neglect of our nation’s veterans and defies every well-intentioned effort for change.

Despite these problems, VA Secretary Robert McDonald is touring the country touting “progress,” even though excessive health care wait times across the system have increased since last year. It seems like shocking examples of VA failure show up in headlines daily.

Minnesota is no exception. Here in the Twin Cities, wait times for thousands of VA health care appointments drag on longer than 30 days. Adding to this failure, hundreds of local veterans were denied the disability benefits to which they’re entitled. The VA allowed unqualified staff to conduct evaluations properly reserved for physicians, misdiagnosing patients and leaving them without access to the care they needed.

Most disturbingly, a recent VA probe of the St. Cloud VA Medical Center revealed “a work environment where employees are scared to report problems” and face “fear of reprisal and not wanting to get on the bad side of the medical center director and chief of staff.” This toxic culture left doctors saddled with a workload of 1,800 patients per physician.

Yet this is all too often the VA’s standard operating procedure. The agency prefers burying its problems instead of encouraging staff to speak up or propose solutions. That’s why changing leadership, constant budget increases, hiring new staff, and even acts of Congress have done little to fix the VA’s lackluster service and results.

What good are new staff members at what’s already the second-largest federal agency if they’re stifled by bureaucracy and punished for challenging the status quo?

It’s urgent that Congress uses its power to push past the VA’s resistance and reform veterans’ health care. We have a road map for that reform; our “Fixing Veterans Healthcare” report (http://cv4a.org/veterans-health-care-report) is a comprehensive legislative plan for making the VA responsive and accountable to those it’s supposed to serve — veterans.

We believe the VA needs to be strengthened, streamlined — and preserved. To do this, our plan would bring about efficient, effective and accountable service from the VA. Our bipartisan report fully separates the VA’s insurance and benefits administration from its health care services. This will streamline the benefits administration, preventing the kind of mistakes Minnesota veterans endured, while freeing VA doctors and nurses to focus on their patients rather than paperwork. VA’s health care services should operate like a health care network (think Mayo Clinic), not a Washington bureaucracy. The steps in our reform report would achieve that.

The reforms also would put an end to the ongoing problem of excessive wait times. It gives veterans the freedom to use their benefits for care outside the VA whenever they need to, whether it’s to avoid long wait times or just because it’s more convenient. Veterans deserve a real choice, and until they have one, the VA will take them for granted.

Meanwhile, VA health care administrators would be empowered to hold staff accountable, shift resources to where they’re most needed, and hire outside consultants (and off-the-shelf technology) to reduce wait times and streamline scheduling.

Finding better ways to protect and honor veterans is also why we created the Defend Freedom Tour. Veterans’ issues should be part of the national conversation every day. To that end, we have traveled across the nation to over 50 cities, celebrating veterans’ heroism while building a movement for reform. Join us here in the Twin Cities on Saturday (Sept. 12), when we conclude the tour in Fort Snelling.

Sept. 11 was a rallying cry that led Americans to stand up for our freedom and defend what we hold dear. This day — and every day — must also be a rallying cry to stand up for those who defended it.

 

Pete Hegseth and Jason Quick are, respectively, the CEO and Minnesota director of Concerned Veterans for America.