By Rep. Adrian Smith
During the August work period I have been travelling the Third District meeting with and listening to Nebraskans. This year, more than ever, I am taking time to hear from veterans, current members of the military, and their families. Our nation has made a commitment to those who have served in uniform, and it is important policy makers listen to them to ensure we are meeting this commitment.
I recently held open houses to meet with veterans in Scottsbluff, Chadron, and Grand Island to listen to their experiences and opinions regarding the VA. Veterans told me in each of these meetings access to quality health care is among their top concerns.
Their concerns are well justified. Recent reports of mismanagement and abuse at Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals are unacceptable and raise serious questions. In pursuit of bonuses, some VA employees appear to have created secret waitlists to give the impression the system was meeting goals for wait times for appointments. In some areas this left thousands of veterans waiting months and even years for appointments. Dozens of veterans may have died while waiting for care.
Before departing for the August work period the House of Representatives and the Senate agreed to a bipartisan first step toward reforming the VA and ensuring veterans are able to receive the health care they were promised and deserve. The Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act will at least temporarily allow veterans who live further than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility, or are unable to schedule an appointment within 30 days to seek care outside of the VA system.
The bill also makes important reforms to allow the VA to fire employees when they abuse the system. The recently revealed mismanagement should not be tolerated and the VA will now have greater flexibility to hold these employees accountable for their actions. The bill also provides for new hiring and upgrades to some VA facilities.
I have also been working to prevent the closure of the VA hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Reducing services at Hot Springs and requiring many rural veterans from Nebraska to drive upwards of six hours roundtrip for care will cause many to not seek or delay seeking the services they need. At a time when we are working to improve access, increase transparency and accountability within the VA, and improve the quality of care – this proposal simply does not make sense.
Last week, I participated in a House Committee on Veterans Affairs field hearing along with the committee chairman, other regional members of Congress, representatives of the Save the VA Committee, and officials from the VA to discuss their plan to reduce services at Hot Springs. I had requested Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) visit the facility, and I appreciate him going the extra mile to hold a hearing.
At the hearing, I was disappointed the VA did not provide additional information about the costs of closing or refurbishing the Hot Springs facility, or the impact on local veterans. This hearing was a great opportunity to allow lawmakers on the House Veterans Affairs Committee to see the importance of keeping this facility open and to expose the flaws in the VA’s plans.
Access to quality health care can be a challenge in rural America, but particularly for veterans who have fewer options for care. As your Representative and Co-Chair of the Rural Veterans Caucus I will continue to oppose all efforts to restrict choice and availability of heath care services for our veterans. Those who have served our nation deserve nothing less.