The United States is blessed with great liberties because of the courageous men and women who defend them. The bedrock of this country’s security is a strong volunteer armed forces and a sacred covenant between the citizen and the soldier.
The terrible scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs are a national disgrace. That once-sacred covenant has been called into question. Barry Coates knows this all too well.
Barry, who is an Army veteran from South Carolina, spent months in terrible pain. He begged the VA for an examination into the cause — only to be put on a wait list with other veterans. After many months of waiting, Barry was granted his screening. There, doctors found a cancerous tumor the size of a baseball.
Many veterans share his story. In 2014, a scandal revealed that many veterans languished and died while waiting for treatment at VA hospitals.
The problems at the VA go much deeper.
A whistleblower revealed that the VA had misspent as much as $5 billion in taxpayer money. That’s billions of dollars that could have gone to better care, research into traumatic brain injury, cancer screenings, or new studies on post-traumatic stress.
Millions in executive bonuses were awarded to VA officials, many of whom oversaw hospitals where veterans were waiting to receive care. And only three people have since been fired for lying about the time it took for veterans to get an appointment.
This happened despite the fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs’ budget has risen 73 percent in recent years.
It’s time to fix the system.
If the VA cannot find a doctor for a veteran in need, then we must empower veterans to find proper health care.
First, we trusted veterans to defend our country; we can trust them to choose their doctor. They should have the right to decide to use the VA hospital system or a neighborhood doctor. Last year, a bipartisan bill gave some veterans the right to do exactly that, with some restrictions.
We should expand the access to quality health care and ease some of the constraints. If the VA cannot find a doctor for a veteran in need, then we must empower veterans to find proper health care.
Since the Veterans Health Administration has historically oriented its care toward men, the improvements to the system need to also focus specifically on services required by women veterans. That starts by preparing for the further growth in the female veterans population with responsive programs in organization, staff, and training — including in obstetrics, gynecology, and specializations in ovarian and breast cancer.
And VA pharmacies should be allowed to fill prescriptions from outside doctors. The current practice requires that all medication be approved in-house, often requiring a VA doctor to confirm the opinion of a veteran’s private doctor. This is a redundancy that extends wait times for veterans in need.
Further, many VA practices are antiquated. Their software is out of date, difficult for veterans to use, and susceptible to manipulation. Just last week, a whistleblower revealed that as many as 35,000 veterans were denied care because of a computer glitch.
The VA spends approximately $4 billion on information technology annually, but it does not have a simple app that allows veterans to make appointments, get medical advice, or refill a prescription from a smartphone or tablet. Nor does the VA offer a single, secure online login for veterans to replace the old paper copy of their service discharge.
The VA’s troubles are not just technical. Contracts are often awarded without a competitive bid, driving up costs and taking resources from veterans who need care. Waste is endemic, and it’s all but impossible to fire someone.
The VA’s troubles are not just technical. Waste is endemic, and it’s all but impossible to fire someone.
I support a House bill now before the Senate that makes it easier to fire poorly performing VA employees — especially those who have wasted taxpayer money, committed fraud, or were negligent in the care of a veteran. This isn’t just about punishing incompetence, it’s about allowing talented VA employees to be rewarded and creating incentives for the highest-quality care.
With new VA hospitals in Denver, Orlando, and Las Vegas hopelessly over budget, it is clear that the VA has no business in the construction industry. We should turn VA construction projects over to a more relevant federal agency.
The entire system needs to be simplified, reformed, and refocused on its most important mission — to “care for those who shall have borne the battle.”
But it’s important to remember that not all veterans use VA hospitals. Part of our covenant with them means opening all the opportunities and the possibilities that this country has to offer.
I support efforts to use the GI Bill, an educational benefit, to help veterans who want to start a business. In lieu of using it for education, they should have the option to borrow against their GI benefits for a small-business loan.
With these reforms — and others that I am proposing today as part of a broader veterans plan — we can dramatically upgrade how our government treats those who have sacrificed so much to protect us and expand opportunity so that our nation’s heroes enjoy the bounties of liberty they so richly deserve.
— Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is a candidate for the Republican nomination for president.
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended since its initial posting.