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.