Give The VA The Tools It Needs To Keep Its Promises

Veterans Benefits
Sen. Jon Tester speaks on legislation to support Social Security for servicemembers and veterans.
Photo courtesy of Sen. Tester's Office

In Washington D.C., we are seeing a lot of theatrics and not a lot of concrete action these days.  We hear promises made in hearings and at press conferences, we see ribbons cut on the local news, and we hear blustering politicians call for resignations with no plan to fix the underlying problems. There is no better example of these theatrics than the lip service most politicians pay to helping our veterans. 


But despite all the usual bluster, Congress finally put something together that will make real and necessary changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs. On May 12, the bipartisan Veterans First Act was unanimously approved by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. This bill includes fixes to the Veterans Choice program, addresses the workforce shortage at VA facilities, and strengthens accountability and oversight.

The Choice program was built with good intentions; making it easier for veterans to receive care is always a good goal, but the rollout has been disastrous. This has left many humming along to hours of hold music while trying to reach one of the contractors that administers the Choice program.

Take for instance, a 75-year-old veteran from Havre, Montana. He was referred by his VA doctor to a cardiologist. VA Montana doesn’t have that specialist in Havre, so he was routed through Choice. This vet made several calls to schedule an appointment and spent hours on hold with Health Net. Then after six long months, VA Montana staff scheduled the appointment themselves at a hospital in town nearby. They ran the cardiogram, and it was not good. He was immediately scheduled for heart surgery.   These stories are not unique — all across the country folks are waiting too long for care and these wait times can have grave consequences.

The Veterans First Act, which includes many provisions I have authored, directly addresses these problems and will take great steps in fulfilling our ultimate goal: Making it easier for veterans to access the care they’ve earned.

That’s why after hearing from veterans, I wrote part of the Veterans First Act that fixes Choice by providing the VA with more flexibility to work directly with community healthcare providers in order to deliver care directly to veterans instead of using a middleman to book appointments.

Because making it easier for vets to receive care right there in their communities will benefit veterans everywhere, not just Montana.

But Choice isn’t the only problem currently plaguing the VA. The VA is also grossly understaffed; yet, critical medical positions go unfilled, and the VA doesn’t have the manpower to meet the increased demand for care. The Veterans First Act will help address this by allowing the VA to establish more residency programs and fill VA leadership vacancies that are impacting the delivery of care.

Once the VA is adequately staffed, Congress needs to continue to hold its feet to the fire. That’s why I am proud to say that this bill creates a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. VA officials need to be held accountable, and this bill gives us the tools to make sure they are getting the job done.

The mission for the VA is clear: Make sure veterans can get the care they need in a timely manner. With the Veterans First Act, I believe we give the VA the tools it needs to succeed and Congress the tools it needs to ensure the VA keeps its promises.

Soldiers from the 1-118th Field Artillery Regiment of the 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team fire an M777 Howitzer during a fire mission in Southern Afghanistan, June 10th, 2019. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jordan Trent)

Once again, the United States and the Taliban are apparently close to striking a peace deal. Such a peace agreement has been rumored to be in the works longer than the latest "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" sequel. (The difference is Keanu Reeves has fewer f**ks to give than U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.)

Both sides appeared to be close to reaching an agreement in September until the Taliban took credit for an attack that killed Army Sgt. 1st Class Elis A. Barreto Ortiz, of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. That prompted President Donald Trump to angrily cancel a planned summit with the Taliban that had been scheduled to take place at Camp David, Maryland, on Sept. 8.

Now Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen has told a Pakistani newspaper that he is "optimistic" that the Taliban could reach an agreement with U.S. negotiators by the end of January.

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Audie Murphy (U.S. Army photo)

Editor's note: a version of this post first appeared in 2018

On January 26, 1945, the most decorated U.S. service member of World War II earned his legacy in a fiery fashion.

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A Purple Heart (DoD photo)

Florida's two senators are pushing the Defense Department to award Purple Hearts to the U.S. service members wounded in the December shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola.

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Ships from Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 23 transit the Pacific Ocean Jan. 22, 2020. DESRON 23, part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erick A. Parsons)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

The Navy and Marine Corps need to be a bit more short-sighted when assessing how many ships they need, the acting Navy secretary said this week.

The Navy Department is in the middle of a new force-structure review, which could change the number and types of ships the sea services say they'll need to fight future conflicts. But instead of trying to project what they will need three decades out, which has been the case in past assessments, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said the services will take a shorter view.

"I don't know what the threat's going to be 30 years from now, but if we're building a force structure for 30 years from now, I would suggest we're probably not building the right one," he said Friday at a National Defense Industrial Association event.

The Navy completed its last force-structure assessment in 2016. That 30-year plan called for a 355-ship fleet.

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Master-at-Arms 3rd Class Oscar Temores and his family. (GoFundMe)

When Oscar Jesus Temores showed up to work at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story each day, his colleagues in base security knew they were in for a treat.

Temores was a master-at-arms who loved his job and cracking corny jokes.

"He just he just had that personality that you can go up to him and talk to him about anything. It was goofy and weird, and he always had jokes," said Petty Officer 3rd Class Derek Lopez, a fellow base patrolman. "Sometimes he'd make you cry from laughter and other times you'd just want to cringe because of how dumb his joke was. But that's what made him more approachable and easy to be around."

That ability to make others laugh and put people at ease is just one of the ways Temores is remembered by his colleagues. It has been seven weeks since the 23-year-old married father of one was killed when a civilian intruder crashed his pickup truck into Temores' vehicle at Fort Story.

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