Over the last year, we’ve heard a lot from lawmakers and candidates campaigning for our votes and support. One of the typical promises we hear is that our politicians will be champions for veterans and will ensure they are taken care of for all they’ve sacrificed for this country.
As a veteran myself, I can tell you that lawmakers’ actions speak louder than words.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of using the Department of Veterans Affairs for my health care and am lucky to have walked away with my life, much less my health. I’ve had surgery after surgery to correct malpractice, been left waiting months for needed care, been dismissed and ignored when I’ve raised concerns about my mental health and been overmedicated by careless VA staff.
I’ve been treated as nothing more than a number by the VA, which is why I am grateful for the option to seek care from providers that I choose. But not all veterans have the same choices.
Many are stuck in the VA’s bureaucratic system with long wait times and confusion over what their community care options are for treatment outside VA facilities, if they are even told that they have those options. The VA has made a habit of confusing and manipulating the scheduling process to keep veterans from leaving the VA to use their benefits at non-VA providers.
Some of our Montana lawmakers in Washington have tried to fix these problems at the VA, and some have further perpetuated the issues.
On the one hand, Rep. Matt Rosendale has jumped on the opportunity to ensure veterans know their health care rights and are given access to non-VA care when they need it. Last year, he cosponsored the Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served (GHAPS) Act, which would have written into law the standards by which veterans can access medical care in their own communities rather than having to play games with the VA.
Knowing what we’ve learned in the past about the VA manipulating wait times and trapping veterans in the VA system, this legislation is desperately needed in the new Congress. Rosendale has proven he wants to empower veterans with what’s right for them over what’s right for the VA.
On the other hand, Sen. Jon Tester has been more talk than action on meaningful VA forms. Though he voted in favor of the VA MISSION Act in 2018, he didn’t follow through on key components of the law’s implementation last year.
Tester led the charge on shutting down the Asset and Infrastructure Review (AIR) Commission, a necessary exercise that would have allowed the VA to modernize and streamline its facilities and services, while maintaining or improving existing access to care. This process would have gone hand in hand with community care, to make VA and non-VA care strong options for veterans.
But Tester promoted the misleading idea that shutting down the AIR Commission was about protecting access to care, even though the commission’s work would have supported higher quality care with the same or better options available to veterans What he really did was ensure that VA facilities, which are half a century old on average, continue to crumble at the taxpayers’ expense while failing to provide the very highest level of care.
The new Congress is settling into Washington, and that provides a clean slate for starting VA reform anew.
Those reforms should include components from legislation in the last Congress, namely writing into law standards for accessing community care, more transparency over wait time data, and granting full choice to veterans—in other words, expanding access to non-VA care to all veterans who use the VA for health benefits.
2023 can be the year that Montana lawmakers set the standard for how veterans are treated in their health care — not as burdens on the system meant to help them, but as empowered women and men who should be making the medical choices best for them, whether they choose to use the VA or not.