By Senator Mike Johanns
Our nation made a very important promise to our men and women in uniform who bravely protected our way of life: we will always support you in your endeavors to keep us safe, and we will always care for you when you return from duty. This includes ensuring access to health services. The Department of Veterans Affairs was established to provide our veterans with the services they earned while defending our nation and securing an American legacy for generations to come.
In April, we learned of disturbing practices at the VA facility in Phoenix, Ariz., where VA officials whitewashed VA records to cover up lengthy wait times for medical appointments. Allegations that at least 40 veterans died while waiting to see a doctor in Phoenix sparked more claims of wrongdoing at other VA medical centers across the country. Ultimately, an interim report by the VA Inspector General determined that VA’s scheduling problems are systemic and that at least 1,700 veterans were left off medical care appointment waitlists in Phoenix. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned following the report.
As a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, I take these claims very seriously. It is outrageous to think that our veterans, who sacrificed so much for our nation, would be denied access to care by the very entity created for their care, and that this failure would be covered up. So last week, in a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate swiftly passed a bill that I cosponsored to improve VA access, accountability and transparency for our veterans. The legislation allows veterans to seek care from non-VA doctors if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility, or if the wait for a VA appointment exceeds two weeks—an idea I suggested at a Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing in May. The legislation also allows VA officials to fire senior VA employees for substandard performance, and provides a green light for a number of new leases for VA clinics, including one in Lincoln.
The VA has a long way to go to restore its reputation. I’ve said multiple times that it’s going to take much more to fix the VA than just the dismissal of those responsible for manipulating the VA’s waitlists. This legislation is only one step to address concerns at the VA. The FBI is now investigating criminal wrongdoing, and I joined several of my colleagues in calling on the Department of Justice to prosecute any illegal behavior.
I take very seriously claims by our veterans of misconduct at the VA. Rest assured that I will continue to monitor the VA’s progress to address these glaring and inexcusable practices. I’m committed to ensuring the VA is properly equipped to provide the best quality of service and support for our veterans in a timely fashion. Our veterans deserve the highest level of support and I will do all I can to make sure they receive it.
By Senator Mike Johanns