| November 11, 2019 12:00 AM
At a time when Washington agrees about almost nothing, all wings of both parties agree that veterans deserve honor and respect and that, as a nation, we have a duty to take care of them.
But agreeing on this in principle doesn’t mean we deliver in practice.
On this Veterans Day, the Trump administration and Congress should offer more than words and should work overtime to make sure the 2018 Mission Act is implemented fully.
In one of the most shameful scandals of the past decade, we learned in 2014 that hundreds of veterans died due to excessive wait times and inefficiencies at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Veterans Health Administration. The public was outraged.
This led Congress to pass the Choice Act, a form bill intended to help expand veterans’ options. The law provides some veterans the ability to seek care outside the VA system, even though the bill is paid by the VA.
But after the bill became law, it was poorly implemented and led to confusion, with many veterans unaware of their options and unsure of eligibility requirements.
In 2018, President Trump signed the Mission Act into law. It’s a bipartisan bill meant to fix the Choice Act and expand eligibility so more veterans are able to choose the best healthcare option for them, whether inside the VA system or at a private care alternative. The law was endorsed by more than 30 veterans groups. It allows veterans who meet eligibility criteria, such as being a certain distance from the nearest VA facility or displaying need for a service the VA does not offer, to go outside the VA and receive care from a VA-approved, private community care program.
The Mission Act went into effect in June 2019, and we’re now in the implementation phase. This is a fraught time.
Veterans groups are worried that Congress or the Trump administration will cave to efforts to narrow the freedom veterans have to find their own healthcare providers.
To ensure full freedom for veterans, the administration should speed up one part of the Mission Act, the “Asset and Infrastructure Review.” This is essentially an audit intended to assess the effectiveness of VA’s healthcare infrastructure. Unfortunately, the review is not set to start until 2022 or 2023. But it is already long overdue. Almost 60% of VA healthcare facilities are 50 years old. Additionally, reports from 2010 suggest the VA spends millions to operate hundreds of empty buildings.
A bill proposed by Rep. Phil Roe would speed up the auditing process. Congress should pass this bill in honor of Veterans Day, and Trump ought to sign it immediately. Efficiency in delivering healthcare to our veterans should not be pushed into the future.
Additionally, the VA must put more resources and effort into the education needed to make the Mission Act effective. Part of the reason the Choice Act failed was that many veterans weren’t even aware of the options they had at their disposal. The Mission Act can only succeed if this failing is avoided and veterans are informed that this is an augmentation, not a replacement, for VA services.
So, too, lawmakers ought to be on the lookout for attempts to sabotage the Mission Act’s implementation and rebut bogus arguments from those who would mislabel the expansion of options for veterans as “privatization” of the VA. In the meantime, Congress should consider steps to go even further in expanding healthcare choice for veterans, as all our veterans should have the option to pursue private care if that’s what they would prefer.
People make choices about where to get their healthcare everyday. There’s no reason our military personnel and veterans should be denied that choice.
The Mission Act has great promise, but it won’t accomplish its goals unless policymakers ensure that, this time, reform is properly implemented. There’s no better time than Veterans Day to resolve ourselves to do better.