Working to Improve Veterans' Healthcare

May 2, 2014
Representative Roby's Weekly Column

There is no greater duty we have as a nation than to care for our veterans. Thousands of doctors, nurses, and public servants at the VA work hard to give veteran patients the best healthcare we can offer. But, too often, our system fails those it was created to help.

An outrageous backlog at the VA has caused veterans to wait months for answers on disability claims. The same is true of VA medical services, where waiting lists for some critical services are terribly long. In some instances, veterans have died waiting for health services from the VA.

That is simply unacceptable in the United States of America, and we need to do something about it. That’s why I’m pleased Congress recently passed an appropriations bill providing critical funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs, while also seeking systemic changes to improve service.

This bi-partisan bill increases funding for veterans programs by $1.5 billion for fiscal year 2015 while remaining below recently enacted budget caps. Specifically, the bill provides funding for medical care, mental health services, suicide prevention activities, traumatic brain injury treatment, homeless services and job training. The bill also contains more than $344 million to modernize the VA electronic health record system and more than $173 million to update the paperless claims processing system – both of which are badly needed to deal with the claims backlog.

As a member of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee, I was proud to work with my colleagues on this funding measure that will ensure proper resources for our veterans assistance programs. I’m also proud that the bill passed the full House of Representatives by an overwhelming 416-1 vote

Of course, money alone won’t solve the backlog problems, which is why the bill contains important measures increasing oversight of and accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

One way I believe we can greatly improve the timeliness and quality of veteran health services is to further develop the Patient-Centered Community Care program, which allows the VA to contract with local health providers. Some services that our veterans need aren’t always offered at their local VA hospital, or if they are, the waiting list for service might be really long. In these cases, it only makes sense for the VA to contract out services through local providers and get the veteran patients the care they need.

I hear often from veterans who have been forced to wait a long time or travel great distances because of gaps in the VA system. Why should a Vietnam veteran and cancer patient in Ozark have to travel to Atlanta for oncology treatments when a non-VA hospital or clinic closer by can provide it? Why should an Iraq veteran in Tallassee who needs physical therapy have to wait weeks or months for treatment at the VA when he could be helped right away at a non-VA facility?

Under the Patient-Centered Community Care program, those alternative treatment arrangements can be made on a contractual basis, reducing the physical burdens on the veteran patients and actually reducing the burden for taxpayers as well by eliminating unnecessary travel and lodging costs. Everyone can agree that offering better care to veterans while saving taxpayer money is a win-win situation.

Patient-Centered Community Care is still a relatively new program so it is not yet widely available. We’ve asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to document its successes and efficiencies so we can make the case for allowing more veterans to take advantage of this innovative program in the future.

Our state is home to a great many veterans who answered the call of duty and honorably served our country. Now it is our duty to provide them the care we promised, and I’m working every day in Congress to do just that.