May 23 2014
Since the Civil War, Americans have gathered each year on Memorial Day to remember the courageous men and women who laid down their lives for our country and express our gratitude. We gather together to remind our children and grandchildren that because of the sacrifices of our nation’s veterans we have the opportunity to live in the strongest, freest and greatest nation in the world.
As citizens, we have a duty to preserve those freedoms and liberties that generations of Americans gave their lives to establish and protect. We also have a duty to make certain the veterans we are fortunate to still have with us today receive the highest quality and most timely care our country can offer, which they deserve from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Unfortunately, the VA is failing our nation’s heroes and thousands of veterans have begun to lose hope in the agency that was created to serve them.
We have all heard the recent news reports from across the country of VA staff developing “secret waiting lists” of veterans waiting to see doctors in order to avoid VA policies on reporting extended delays. Most disturbing is CNN’s report that at least 40 U.S. Veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, many of whom were placed on a secret waiting list. But incidents of mismanagement and even death caused by failures at the VA are far more numerous than what we see on the news.
Every day Kansans reach out to me to share their troubling experiences. The stories come from whistleblowers, veterans and veteran family members across our state who speak of veterans being disregarded or made to feel like a number – rather than like patriots deserving of care from a grateful nation.
Jack Cobos of Topeka sought emergency care for chest pains at Topeka’s Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center, and was told the pain was from the muscles around his heart, not a heart attack. Less than a week later, Jack received several stents in his heart at a community hospital to correct severe blockages that caused back-to-back heart attacks. Jack never fully recovered and passed away on January 17, 2013. One year later, this same Topeka emergency room closed its doors to veterans seeking emergency treatment. I am still waiting for a response from the VA regarding the closure, when it will reopen, and claims of negligence.
Dave Thomas of Leavenworth recently told me about his appalling experience with the VA claims and appeals process. Dave filed his claim for service-connected disabilities in 1970. This distinguished veteran just received his 90 percent disability rating from the VA – 44 years after he originally filed his claim.
The Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Liberal has been without a physician for nearly three years. I have inquired with the VA and heard numerous promises that they are “close” to hiring a provider. Unfortunately, this is yet another broken promise.
These stories just skim the surface of the struggles Kansas veterans face because of the VA claims backlog, mismanagement, lack of oversight and difficult environments. I have repeatedly raised these issues with the VA through direct conversations with VA Secretary Shinseki as well as VA staff, but I rarely – if ever – get a response. Veterans are calling for change, yet the VA continues on a glide path of dysfunction.
The VA suffers from a bureaucratic culture that accepts mediocrity, leaving too many veterans without the care they need. The culture seems to be more concerned about making their quotas and checking boxes than taking care of veterans. Our veterans deserve better – they deserve the best our nation has to offer. That starts with new leadership.
Two weeks ago, for the first time in my 18 years serving in Congress – both in the House and Senate – I called for the resignation of a sitting cabinet secretary. I did not take this decision lightly. Considerable thought about the state of the VA and constantly hearing stories of Kansas veterans being mistreated led to my call for Secretary Shinseki’s resignation. Enough is enough – accountability starts at the top, and there is a difference between wanting change and leading it to happen.
We need true transformation within the VA, from top to bottom and all across the country. In the absence of dramatic change, it is clear that we are not prepared for the servicemen and women who are returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are not capable of caring for our aging veterans as we promised we would and as every American knows we should.
We should not rest until our veterans have a Department of Veterans Affairs worthy of their service and sacrifice.
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