There is no group of Americans I hold in higher regard than our nation’s heroes. During my time in Congress – as a member of both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees – I have made improving the quality of life for the nearly 250,000 veterans living in Kansas a top priority. Especially at a time when thousands of troops are returning from battle and the needs of aging veterans are increasing, I am committed to keeping our promise to those who have served our country.
Our nation’s veterans deserve strong health care and benefits for protecting our country. For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has struggled to provide quality health care for millions of veterans, particularly those who live in rural communities. In fact, 41 percent of all veterans enrolled in the VA Health Care System reside in rural areas. That number will continue to rise with 44 percent of all U.S. Armed Forces recruits residing in rural areas across the country. To meet this growing need, I have championed common sense solutions to increase access to health care for rural veterans as well as crafted legislation and advocated to make certain Critical Access Hospitals, Rural Health Clinics, Sole Community Hospitals, and other rural hospitals can provide quality, community-oriented, primary and preventative care for veterans. I have also led measures to create additional Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs), enhance transportation services to and from VA facilities, increase travel reimbursement, improve Home-Health programs and telemedicine.
I believe Kansas VA medical centers and CBOCs are filled with good, hard-working people who want to care for veterans by providing quality health care. But challenges remain, and recent revelations of failures within the VA system demonstrate what can happen when bureaucracy gets in the way of an organization’s mission. The scandals at VA facilities across the country, including manipulation of veteran waitlists and appointments, represent how internal VA dysfunction impacts access to and quality of health care. As a result of these harmful revelations, I sponsored The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which became law in August 2014. This vital legislation addresses the dysfunctional VA system and increases veterans’ access to health care by offering them the choice to receive care from local providers. The Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act also holds VA employees who directly delayed veteran care through secret wait lists accountable. I will continue to monitor the implementation of this law, and work to make certain Kansas veterans are able to access the health care they deserve.
As part of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, the Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH) Program was extended for another two years. Project ARCH is a congressionally-authorized pilot program I led in the House, which became law in 2008, and allows veterans to access care from non-VA community providers closer to where they live rather than having to travel long distances or simply forgo care altogether. Since 2011, the ARCH Pilot Program has been operating in five rural sites including in Pratt, Kansas. Analysis shows that more than 90 percent of veterans who received primary care services through ARCH were “completely satisfied” with the care, and cited significantly shortened travel times as a primary reason for satisfaction. The law also allows the VA Secretary to expand ARCH within certain Veteran Integrated Service Networks (VISNs). This is good news for rural veterans, as the VA now has the authority and the funding to extend non-VA care contracts and expand the ARCH Program throughout Kansas. I am hopeful about the future of ARCH as it offers access to care that is in the best interest of veterans.
Just as concerning as the recent VA scandal is the extensive VA disability claims backlog. I continue to hear horror stories from Kansans and Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) about the VA claims process – from systemic issues with the back-and-forth of how claims are handled, to the absurd 9-to-18 month waiting game. We know our veterans deserve better; they deserve the best our nation has to offer. I’m proud to be a part of the VA Claims Backlog Working Group, a thoughtful effort to take clear and decisive action to address the VA claims process. In 2014, our Working Group partnered with VSOs to develop The 21st Century Veterans Benefits Delivery Act of 2014 – legislation that proposes common sense solutions to reduce the claims backlog.
Additionally, veterans in Kansas and across the country face challenges when they return home and enter the civilian workforce. It is critical to focus on veteran job creation and employment, which is why I sponsor the Hire More Heroes Act – legislation that encourages companies to hire more veterans while at the same time receive relief from the burdensome Affordable Care Act employer mandate.
Our nation’s veterans should be treated like patriots, deserving of care from a grateful nation – not made to feel like a burden. I will not rest until Kansas veterans have a Department of Veterans Affairs worthy of their service and sacrifice.