VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned. While it solves none of the fundamental problems within the VA, it can perhaps remove him as the object of attention and allow us to focus on the underlying, systemic failings that anyone who cared to look would have already known about.
Care at VA facilities is generally very good. Most veterans that I meet, including during unannounced spot checks at the VHA clinic in El Paso, report that they are very satisfied with the doctors and providers after their visit.
The problem is that a disturbingly high number of veterans can't get in to the VA to get that care. I remember a veteran telling me that the soonest he could get a mental healthcare appointment was in 2013. This was in February of 2012. Since being sworn in last January, it has been the dominant issue at almost every town hall I've held. And now the anecdotal evidence I've collected by listening to veterans throughout this community is scientifically and statistically confirmed in a comprehensive survey that my office conducted and will release next week.
Of course access to care is not the only problem.
We learned from investigations in Phoenix that there is widespread fraud in how wait times are calculated and reported. It's possible that veterans have died because of delayed care while malfeasant managers were bonused for meeting aggressive timelines. But this and past Administrations and Congresses have known since 2005 that local VHA clinics and hospitals were prone to fudging the numbers. The office of the Inspector General has issued reports on an almost annual basis since then warning of this problem. It is part of the reason that I undertook the effort of surveying the veterans in El Paso to try to understand the discrepancies between what the VA was telling me (we're accessible) and what the veteran was telling me (I can't get in).
Add to this the other persistent problems in the VA -- backlogs for disability claims which have morphed into backlogs for claims appeals; unacceptable wait times for disability ratings and benefits for transitioning soldiers in our Warrior Transition Units; homelessness, suicide and difficulty in workforce integration -- and it's clear that we have a system that is incapable of working at a level that any of us should be satisfied with.
We need a complete rethinking of what the VA does and how it does it; of whether we can really go to war and pay the cost to care for those who've borne the battle; and whether we have the real interest, and attention span, to do more for our veterans than to thank them for their service.
I appreciate the outrage and frustration that many of my colleagues have expressed in the last few weeks. But what would be even better is a sustained, determined effort to correct the underlying problems and challenge ourselves to be honest about what kind of care we want to provide our veterans and what we're willing to pay to deliver it.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee on which I serve is not an "A-List" committee. The work is hard, complicated and messy. It's not a place from which a member can successfully raise money from the special interests who have a stake in the legislative outcomes (see: Armed Services, Energy and Commerce, etc.). In fact, more than half of the members are freshmen, like myself. I hope that the recent revelations will focus the interests of Congressional leadership and renew the drive that committee members have to complete the tough work before them.
Secretary Shinseki is gone, but the real work to address the outrage we all feel is still before us.