On Veterans Day, Americans gather to remember and celebrate the selfless acts of those who served in defense of our country. We demonstrate our respect and appreciation for the liberty and safety secured by the actions of military men and women. But truly honoring their service requires action not just on November 11th, but every day.
Regrettably, the recent treatment of American veterans has taken a worrisome turn. While our society has such great respect for those who have served, the organization charged with providing their care has fallen short, failing to uphold its commitments to our veterans.
The problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs reached a breaking-point this year, leading whistleblowers to shine a light on the abuse, neglect, and cover-ups within the VA. Investigations of VA medical facilities across the country made clear that these accusations were not just isolated cases of bad behavior, but rather a systemic and cultural problem that had infected the entire VA system.
Like many Americans, I was disturbed by the dysfunction and disservice to veterans under the care of the VA, an agency created to serve them. The spout of reports was especially infuriating to lawmakers and Veterans Service Organizations whose oversight was diminished and calls for action ignored by VA leadership. It was also a wakeup call for those who had simply become complacent with a VA system that settled for mediocrity.
The existing leadership at the VA proved incapable of fixing the Department’s problems. I began the rally for new leadership and accountability to make certain the wrongdoers faced consequences. A new secretary of Veterans Affairs was confirmed in August. Since then, the new Secretary Bob McDonald has shown a desire to make the difficult steps needed to reform the VA system and inspire his employees to do better.
To enhance the Secretary’s ability to keep the Department on a path of recovery, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act this summer to empower the VA Secretary to more readily remove employees for misconduct and poor performance. This power to easily rid the VA of its bad actors was long overdue.
To truly honor veterans, we must create an agency that is more compassionate and more caring toward the men and women it serves. The need for a functional and effective VA has never been greater. Today, the VA must tend to the needs of aging World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, while keeping up with new challenges posed by caring for veterans of more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Kansas, this means increasing access to timely, quality care, especially for those living in the rural areas of our state. In the past, veterans have been required to travel hundreds of miles for appointments at VA facilities. This was an unacceptable burden for rural veterans, who compose 41 percent of the VA Health Care System. New policies passed by Congress this year will allow certain veterans to receive treatment at hometown facilities.
Improved service to rural veterans is further achieved by making certain Critical Access Hospitals, Rural Health Clinics, Sole Community Hospitals and other rural hospitals can provide quality primary and preventative care for veterans. Other positive developments include the creation Community Based Outpatient Clinics, enhancing transportation services to and from VA facilities, increasing travel reimbursement and improving Home-Health programs which bring care to a veteran’s doorstep. Despite these positive steps, there is more to be done in correcting the bad policies of the past and improving the quality of life for our nation’s veterans.
Whatever the mission, the men and women we honor on Veterans Day were ready to answer the call. We are forever grateful for your service. Our nation would not be what it is today without your strength, sacrifice and bravery.
Today military men and women are following in the footsteps of our veterans and do so at great risk. I pray that those currently serving the United States abroad return safely to the families who love them. It is our charge to welcome service members home with open arms, and make certain our promises of respect and care are kept.
Jerry Moran is a United States Senator for Kansas and a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.