As a Vietnam veteran, I understand the importance of constantly working to improve health care for our veterans. I work closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to ensure that our nation lives up to its commitment here in New Jersey, especially for the men and women who use East Orange and Lyons VA Medical Centers.
That is why I am outraged that, despite the sacrifices of so many men and women in uniform, the promise our nation has made to all its veterans is not being met.
Health Care System Failures – Fixing Excessive Wait Times and Gross Mismanagement
Earlier this year, deeply disturbing reports of excessive wait times for doctor’s appointments, falsified records designed to hide the unacceptably long wait times, and gross inefficiencies across the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system were brought to light.
These revelations were profoundly troubling and completely unacceptable. Our country has a sacred obligation to ensure that those veterans who are eligible for health care through the VA receive the best possible medical care in a timely and efficient manner.
The poor state of VA management not only led to long wait times for veterans, but also to serious health care problems and even deaths. Data manipulation, patient harm, and the possibility of criminal charges have already been confirmed in Arizona, but there are at least ten other VA facilities where problems have been alleged or proven. And, this shameful activity is occurring in an era of increasing resources for the VA. Funding levels have increased by well over 60 percent since 2009. This year, the FY15 budget request contains an increase of 6.5 percent over last year's spending.
When the veterans who have put their lives on the line for this nation die because of delayed or improper care from the VA, we are right to be angry, but that is not enough. Whether it is the claims backlog, the “secret lists,” or preventable deaths or the ongoing electronic health records debacle, it is crystal clear the problems at the VA represent a system-wide management crisis.
Of course, the vast majority of VA employees, many of them veterans, are hard-working individuals with a passion for serving those who have served our country. But at the root of this epidemic of neglect is a culture of bureaucracy that protects the very people who should be held accountable, often giving them bonuses rather than a “pink slip!”
To correct these unacceptable conditions, the House passed on Thursday, July 30, 2014, with my strong support, legislation that will give the VA the tools it needs to address these problems. The Senate later passed the bill and President Obama signed it into law on August 7, 2014. This new law will:
- Ensure that no veteran has to endure an excessive wait for needed medical care, this new law will allow eligible veterans to go outside the VA system if they cannot be given an appointment within 30 days. $10 billion is provided to cover the cost of care received outside the VA health care system.
- Further address the waiting times for appointments, this law provides $5 billion to increase the number of physicians and other health care professionals working in the VA health care facilities.
- Address the mismanagement that exists at too many VA health care facilities, the new law gives the VA greater authority to fire or demote supervisory employees for poor performance or misconduct.
- And make certain that these improvements and changes are being carried out by establishing a Congressional Commission on Care that will allow us to make sure the improvements we expect are being carried out.
The new secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert A. McDonald, must act swiftly and firmly to end the mismanagement that has plagued the Department and let down our veterans. We have given him the tools. Now he must do the job.
All of us are deeply grateful for the sacrifices and service our men and women veterans have provided our nation. By keeping faith with our veterans, we keep faith with their families and also with our warfighters, all volunteers, who carry on the fight of freedom every day.
A History of Support
As a veteran and the Chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, I make it a priority to meet with the men and women in uniform from across New Jersey, wherever they are at home and abroad. I know how important these new benefits are to them and am proud that Democrats and Republicans are able to work together.
I am committed to working to provide improved benefits to veterans and their families. Part of this effort is to improve health care coverage- especially at Lyons, East Orange Veterans Medical Centers, the Morris County Outpatient facility in Morris Township, and elsewhere around the state.
I am also proud that of the role I played in creating the “Valley Brook Village for Veterans,” a supportive housing community for homeless veterans which is located on the campus of the VA facility at Lyons in Bernards Township. This year more than 1,000 homeless veterans and their families will be served at this facility, giving them a fresh start to a better life.
Through my efforts, Lyons VA opened a new, state-of-the-art Ambulatory Care Center in 2005 for outpatient care and a Domiciliary Care facility to provide homeless veterans with housing, job training placement, medical and psychiatric assistance, and help with medical claims.
I continue to work closely with elected officials and veterans groups in Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Sussex counties to enhance the “Hope for Veterans” program at Lyons VA. The program provides employment services, training, substance abuse counseling, and transitional housing for veterans who have been left homeless as a result of mental illness or substance abuse. The program is blessed with many volunteers and generous private supporters.
Due to advances in battlefield medicine, troops who suffer terrible injuries in battle are far more likely to survive. That is why providing treatment for veterans suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is also a top priority for me. I have seen the extraordinary work going on at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland and at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. The doctors, nurses, and other medical providers at these hospitals are providing remarkable care to our wounded warriors and they have my thanks and strong support.
In July of 2008, with my strong support, Congress modernized the GI Bill of Rights for the first time since 1984. Under the improved program, servicemen and women now have the opportunity to transfer education benefits to members of their family. Under the old law, education benefits had to be used by the person who served. For the first time, this legislation makes National Guard and Reserve members eligible for full GI Bill benefits. These men and women, all volunteers, are serving our country across the globe, and it was important to make sure their benefits match their sacrifice.
Our military veterans deserve our thanks and appreciation. For Congress, this means providing them with quality benefits and services, including affordable medical care and opportunities for higher education. Most importantly, it means setting the highest possible standard for the level of attention and care they receive, so that today’s military -- and those who step up tomorrow, all volunteers – know they will not be forgotten.
That’s my promise to those who have served and to their families.
As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I have always believed that the federal government has no greater obligation than to keep the American people safe and to take care of the men and women in uniform who put their lives on the line for us. For this reason, Congress has been extremely reluctant to make changes to military compensation.
However, the need for comprehensive reform is undeniable. Since 2001, excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost per service member in the active duty force has risen by 41% in inflation-adjusted dollars. We all know that we need to slow cost growth in military compensation while being fair to our military personnel and their families. Otherwise, we will have to make damaging and disproportionate cuts to military readiness and modernization. Our troops have been willing to sacrifice everything for this country. We owe it to them to give them the best equipment and capabilities on the battlefield and a secure retirement when they come home.
That is why I was very disappointed to see an ad hoc military retirement “reform” – the Cost of Living Adjustment reduction (COLA) – included as part of the must-pass Bipartisan Budget Act in December 2013.
Of course, we were able to repeal, in the Defense Appropriations bill I brought before the House in January, the provision in the new law that affected the retired pay of service members who are medically retired and those receiving survivor’s benefits. With the amendment the House passed on February 12, we are ensuring that all servicemen and women who are enlisted prior to January 1, 2014 will receive the full cost of living adjustments in retirement before and after age 62. In essence, we are scrapping the entire COLA cut well before this provision took effect in December 2015.
Veterans deserve fair compensation and America owes them a safe benefit structure they can depend on.