Garry J. Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, is executive director of the nearly 1.3 million-member DAV National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, D.C. His responsibilities include oversight of DAV’s National Service and Legislative Programs. He is the organization’s principal spokesperson before Congress, the White House and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
After three years of crisis and controversy, the Department of Veterans Affairs has reached a watershed moment, and decisions about how to strengthen and reform its health care system must be made this year. The central element of this debate lies in the design — how can we create new care options for veterans outside the VA without inhibiting access or reducing quality for those who choose and rely on the VA system?
When faced with something as complex as ensuring veterans have timely access to the health care they need, it’s always dangerous to gravitate toward simple-sounding solutions. That’s certainly the case this election year, as “let the money follow the veteran, instead of funding VA,” has become a popular soundbite on the campaign trail and even on Capitol Hill. Yes, we need to reform veterans health care, but taking money out of the Department of Veterans Affairs and sending it into the private sector is not the cure.
After being severely wounded and nearly dying in Vietnam, I spent 18 months at Walter Reed before being transferred to a VA hospital. There, VA doctors, nurses, and staff cared for my wounds, began my rehabilitation and made it possible for me to successfully return to civilian life. I shudder to think what would have happened to me, and thousands like me, if there had not been a VA health care system in place specifically designed to comprehensively address our unique needs as veterans.