Arizona continues to show the country that veterans need health care options

OPINION:

Recently, Arizona made veterans’ health care news as reports emerged of rat infestation in a Phoenix VA nursing home. Residents had to be moved and procedures were brought to a standstill as the Department of Veterans Affairs figured out how to handle the infestation.

We aren’t shocked by any bad news we hear from the VA these days, especially when that bad news comes from Phoenix.

In fact, we expect it.

In 2014, Phoenix’s scandalous mismanagement of veterans’ medical appointments brought to light the rampant disregard the VA had for those who raised their right hand in service to this country. Manipulated wait times and delays in care led to deaths and preventable illnesses for veterans who were promised care.

It didn’t stop in Phoenix. Blatantly irresponsible and disrespectful treatment of our nation’s heroes was discovered in VA facilities all over the country. Just last week, we led a congressional forum on these exact issues and heard from countless veterans who can tell their own horror stories of long appointment waits and mistreatment.

This is the system that many veterans are trapped in, and that we as lawmakers and advocates haven’t done enough to fix.

To be sure, significant progress has been made since the initial Phoenix VA scandal broke in 2014. The biggest win for veterans since then has been the passage of the VA Mission Act, landmark legislation that expanded veterans’ access to medical care in the community if the VA can’t meet wait or drive time standards.

But the VA Mission Act was just the first step. Recently the VA has tried to manipulate and block access to community care every step of the way. VA administrators have overruled doctors’ advice for veterans to go to community care providers and have used appointment scheduling methods that intentionally keep veterans locked in the VA system. With the department standing as a roadblock to veterans’ care, further legislation is needed to give veterans true choice over their care.

Fortunately, we’ve worked together to introduce and promote a solution to bureaucracy getting in the way of veterans’ choices.

The Veterans Health Care Freedom Act, introduced by Rep. Andy Biggs, would take the model the VA uses for urgent care and launch a pilot program offering access to non-VA care for any veteran, regardless of wait times or distance from a VA facility. The program would then be expanded to all veterans who use the VA for their care benefits.

Expanding community care out to all veterans isn’t just good for veterans. It would also release some of the pressure on the VA to apply standards it can’t meet or provide care better provided by the community, leaving the VA more resources for those with service-connected injuries.

But without these options and reforms that would expand access to care, we risk dooming veterans to a system that doesn’t prioritize their needs. Veterans deserve better than rat-infested facilities and poor appointment management that leaves them no other options but to subject themselves to that low quality of care.

We will continue to fight for better health care options for veterans. For those who like the VA, we want to see a strong and effective VA that can meet their needs. For those who want to see a doctor in their community, it’s the least we can do to ensure they have that choice.

• Rep. Andy Biggs is the U.S. representative from Arizona’s 5th District. Joshua Stanwitz is national grassroots liaison for Concerned Veterans for America and a veteran of the Marine Corps and Army National Guard who served a combat tour in Iraq. 

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