The U.S. government has fallen shamefully short of honoring its commitment to veterans in recent years. One reform measure after another has failed to resolve chronic problems with health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs. On Capitol Hill, a new attempt is in the works — this time focusing on workforce shortages and leadership vacuums, including in Missouri.
The Delivering Opportunities for Care and Services (DOCS) for Veterans Act seeks, among other things, to bolster recruitment efforts through salary increases and tuition loan assistance. It also would expand partnerships with existing agencies to establish more mental health residency programs, particularly in rural and underserved areas.
The bill, co-sponsored by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, arrives amid continuing signs of trouble at the VA, including a report that more veterans are waiting more than a month for medical care despite repeated attempts to end those delays.
The number of veterans who spend more than a month on waiting lists has jumped 50 percent in the past year, according to an investigation by The New York Times. The VA expanded its capacity during that time but underestimated ongoing surges in demand for services. Last year, the VA handled 2.7 million more appointments than in any previous year and authorized 900,000 veterans to see outside physicians, the paper reported.
In addition to focusing on recruitment of doctors, mental health counselors and physician assistants, the DOCS for Veterans Act seeks to resolve problems with long-running vacancies in leadership positions at the VA, including in Missouri.
McCaskill and Missouri’s other senator, Roy Blunt, recently asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald to explain the troubles finding a permanent director for the St. Louis region, which serves about 46,000 veterans a year. Since 2013, the region has had seven acting directors.
McDonald’s response speaks volumes about the depth of problems at the VA. On two of six attempts to fill the vacancy, there were no qualified applicants, and on other occasions top candidates chose to take jobs elsewhere. The VA is close to naming yet another new director, McDonald wrote back to the senators.
Although doctors and nurses are the top priorities, it’s essential that medical centers have stable leadership to oversee operations and troubleshoot problems. The proposed legislation calls for assessing and addressing disparities in leadership pay between the VA and the private sector and strengthening policies designed to ensure a line of succession is in place when vacancies occur.
The bill has the backing of numerous veterans groups, including the American Legion, the American Mental Health Counselors Association and AMVETS. Mental health groups are pleased with the plans for additional services to address high suicide rates among veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This reform effort deserves support from Congress and the Obama administration — as well as the determination to see an end to recurring, intolerable problems at the VA.
It’s not enough for America to thank veterans for their service with words. Our men and women in uniform need to be provided the services they were promised — swiftly and efficiently.