Keeping Our Pledge to Veterans

04/06/2015 10:50 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Before joining the Armed Forces, every American service member is required to swear an oath to support and defend the United States Constitution, a pledge that our men and women in uniform met with courage, conviction and sacrifice. When active duty ends, we have an obligation to uphold our own pledge, a pledge to ensure that every veteran receives the care and benefits they deserve.

Continuing backlogs and long waitlists make it clear that we still haven't fully lived up to our commitment. On March 24, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) adopted rule clarifications that expand veterans' access to private care. These changes make improvements at the VA, but timely and excellent healthcare is still out of reach for many of our veterans. Put simply, our country can and must do better.

The rule revisions announced by the VA this March expand the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to seek care from a private provider when a VA facility is too far from home or when local facilities are experiencing lengthy backlogs. Previously, veterans were allowed to seek private care if a VA facility was at least forty miles distance from their home, measured as the crow flies. America's veterans can do many things, but they can't fly. Thankfully, the VA will now measure those forty miles by driving distance, potentially doubling the number of veterans eligible for local, private care.

This commonsense change follows the recommendation I made with a bipartisan group of lawmakers earlier this year. On March 3, I joined a letter with more than forty of my colleagues in the House calling on the VA to revise its forty mile rule to account for driving distance, travel time and the kinds of treatment offered. Adopting the first of these changes was a welcome start, but to serve the most veterans in need, we should act on all three.

Remaining flaws in the VA's forty mile rule hit home in rural America, where many veterans live within forty miles of a VA facility, but not near one that provides specialized care. Right now, they are still locked out of the Veterans Choice Program, even when the care they need is not offered at the local VA clinic. For some veterans, that means a trip out-of-state to find a VA facility offering the right services. For others, it means an hours-long drive even though a non-VA hospital offers care near them. This very scenario is playing out right now for a number of my constituents who live in Western Maryland.

During their service, men and women in our Armed Forces live by a common creed, promising never to leave a soldier behind. We should live by the same principle. When our veterans are asked to travel hundreds of miles for care that's offered right next door, we simply aren't living up to that standard and something has to change.

This Congress, I've cosponsored the Real Choice for Veterans Act, a bipartisan bill to provide veterans access to private care when the VA facility near them does not provide the specialized services they need. This bill provides a legislative remedy to the problem should the VA not make the change internally.

Improving care for our veterans should be a top national priority, and the VA's rule revision this March built on progress made earlier this Congress improving mental health care. Over the past several years, suicides among veterans suffering from service-connected PTSD and depression have risen sharply, with an estimated 22 veterans taking their own lives each day. The struggle these veterans face receiving adequate care for PTSD and depression is a tragedy that needs to be addressed, which is why I cosponsored the Clay Hunt SAV Act. In addition to improving VA recruitment and retention efforts for mental health professionals, this legislation centralizes resources for veterans in need of care and brings stronger oversight and accountability to the VA. Our veterans, our service members, and our military families should be able to count on the VA's care, and I was pleased to see the Clay Hunt SAV Act become law this January.

Today, the United States is home to more than 21 million veterans. Their service should never be forgotten, least of all when they're in need of care. While the progress achieved by the VA's revised rule and legislation like the Clay Hunt SAV Act takes an important step forward reforming access to care for our veterans, our work is far from over. As a cosigner of the Veterans' Bill of Rights, I'm committed to making sure that veterans' issues remain a top priority in Congress.

When it comes to those who've served, our nation has made a promise -- to remember those who've fallen and to care for those who served.