Point of view

An appalling record on caring for our veterans

April 21, 2014 

  • Panel discussion

    What: “Reforming Veterans Affairs: Preserving Promises to North Carolina’s Veterans,” moderated by Weekly Standard senior writer Stephen Hayes. Panelists include Sen. Richard Burr, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America; and Ilario Pantano, director of N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs. To register, go to nando.com/veterans.

    When: 11 a.m. Wednesday

    Where: Raleigh Marriott City Center, 500 Fayetteville St.

After spending a week on Capitol Hill meeting with leaders in Congress, I came away with a powerful conviction: The Department of Veterans Affairs is failing our nation’s veterans, and there is broad agreement that the status quo is unacceptable. The steps taken to solve this problem must be decisive.

The situation is dire in North Carolina. The state has 769,000 veterans, one of the highest numbers in the nation. Yet North Carolina’s VA has one of the worst claims backlogs in the country. The state’s wait times for veterans are also much longer than the national average.

Veterans feel the effects every day. They die while waiting for appointments. They’re turned away from the care that they’ve earned. They wait for months to learn if they will receive the benefits they’ve been promised. And nationally the VA estimates 22 veterans a day take their own lives.

This explosion of suicides in the veteran community is a symptom of all that’s wrong with the VA. Faced with a culture of repeated delay and disappointment, our nation’s veterans struggle to find effective care. Those who seek treatment must navigate a confusing bureaucracy that only adds to feelings of frustration and isolation. As the prospect of finding a path to meaningful treatment fades, faith in the very system our veterans rely on is lost, oftentimes along with their hope for the future.

As this generation of veterans knows all too well, after an explosion you must act quickly and decisively if you want to save lives. You find the tourniquets and apply constant, unrelenting pressure to stop the bleeding until help arrives. Over 13 years of combat we’ve gotten proficient at saving lives on the battlefield; this means more sons and daughters, moms and dads, brothers and sisters are returning home to pursue dreams and live lives that in past conflicts would have been lost.

It also means that the mission of the VA has never been more important. As we bring our warriors back from “over there” it is important to remember that it takes more than a plane ride to bring them home. This requires an effective care system that helps them reclaim the lives they left behind and equips them to win a new battle of transition and reintegration.

To do so requires effective leadership at the VA, with a culture of accountability and a focus on results. Yet the department resists common sense changes that would empower the administration to hold their leaders to accountable to their sacred mission.

The bleeding at VA can be stopped only by holding its leaders accountable. This means rewarding success, addressing failure and renewing the department’s focus on veterans. The VA Management and Accountability Act is a step in this direction.

The VA Management Accountability Act empowers the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs with the ability to hold the hospital managers, the regional office directors and the upper management of the department accountable for their performance. As it stands, these employees are shielded from accountability by layers of bureaucracy and processes that make it harder than it should be to hold these people accountable. The bill would allow the many effective employees within the VA, who serve our veterans with honor and pride, to be recognized and promoted for their hard work. Giving leaders the power to put the right people in the right place eliminates excuses, encourages commitment and rewards success. This is why 86 lawmakers have already joined in the effort.

This issue shouldn’t be a victim of Washington’s politics-as-usual. Too often good ideas get to Congress and become mired in committee hearings or lost in massive spending bills. The VA Management and Accountability Act deserves better – it serves a noble goal and doesn’t cost a cent. The cost of not passing it, however, may be the lives of 22 more veterans every day.

James Ferguson is a retired Marine Corps officer and a member of Concerned Veterans for America.

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