I came to this country like thousands of others, an immigrant from a communist country in search of a better life. My grandfather would come home to Cuba from Florida to visit, and I remember listening to all his stories about this free country so different from my own.
As a child, I struggled with my health. It was often difficult to see doctors and get appointments because of the controlled, bureaucratic way all things run in a communist country. Cuba was a country of limitations.
America, on the other hand, was the country of dreams, and I couldn’t wait to go.
My family joined my grandfather when I was 12 years old. I faced the challenges of a normal teenager, but with the added difficulty of learning English and getting used to a new country.
At 17, I took on a bigger challenge, joining the U.S. Navy. In Cuba, military service was required, and I’m sure my parents thought they’d escaped that fate for me. But I was excited to join and serve this new country I called home.
After getting out of the Navy, I went to my local Veterans Affairs facility to get some health concerns addressed. What I assumed would be an easy process to make an appointment and get treatment was anything but.
It took two months to get into the VA for an appointment and two more months to get seen by the right person and treated.
It brought back painful memories of how difficult it was to get good care in Cuba. I never imagined I would face similar challenges in America.
I’ve heard similar stories across the veteran community – the VA takes forever to see us, and when we finally get in, the quality of care can be subpar. That is not what we expected from our health care after serving our country.
The VA has been a roadblock to care for years, painting itself as the best and only care provider vets need. And while some veterans are happy with their VA care, many are not. The wait times, scandals, quality ratings, and veterans’ complaints is proof of that.
There are alternatives for those veterans unhappy with their care. The Veterans’ Community Care Program allows veterans to use their VA health benefits at facilities in the community. But this program, which is required by the law, challenges the VA’s status quo. Internal documents and oversight reports all show a concerted effort from the VA to keep veterans out of community care and in the VA system.
That is not what we were promised. More importantly, it’s not what we earned.
We need access to care that works for our unique circumstances, and choices over where we seek that care. If the VA is the best choice, that should be an option. And if not, we should have other options. The VA’s job is to ensure we get the care we need, not to block us from getting care if we want to go outside the VA’s walls.
Legislation such as the Veterans Health Care Freedom Act, Veterans True Choice Act, and Veterans’ HEALTH Act, each introduced into Congress this year, all seek to address the problems with accessing care. Each would give veterans more control over our care, allowing us to make the best decisions for ourselves.
Hispanic immigrants, especially those of us who left communist countries, have a unique love for America. We know it to be a land of opportunity where we aren’t limited by what our government allows us to have.
That’s why we left everything to come here, and why so many of us join the military. We want to secure the promise of America. I’ll continue to fight for care that fits my needs, and the needs of my veteran brothers and sisters — not what the VA thinks is right for us.
I hope our lawmakers will get on board with ensuring all veterans have the care we fought for and need.
Edrys Leyva is a grassroots engagement director with Concerned Veterans for America in Miami, Florida and a veteran of the United States Navy.