Let's ensure that veterans get the care they have earned

Veterans Affairs
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.

We will soon celebrate the 241st birthday of the greatest country in the world, a country where we have the freedom to live out our beliefs, express ourselves openly, choose our representatives at every level of government, and pursue our dreams for ourselves and our families. We owe these freedoms to the men and women who have defended them and have fought for America and the values we hold dear. Many of them have returned home with serious injuries — seen and unseen — and sadly, some have made the ultimate sacrifice for all of us.

Unfortunately, when veterans return home, many are faced with a system that is not providing them with the quality health care and other benefits they have earned. My congressional district is home to more than 50,000 veterans and I’ve heard these hardships first hand — stories from veterans not receiving adequate care, of long wait times, and of even longer delays on disability claims. The Department of Veterans Affairs has many fine people trying to serve our veterans, but there are bad apples who remain, systems set up for failure, and too little accountability.

One of the most important questions for our federal government is what we can do about these problems. I would like to suggest two important steps.

Some veterans have suffered service-related disabilities and have earned participation in the Individual Unemployability Program. This vital benefit makes up for the income veterans have lost by not being able to work due to their disability. Importantly, the benefit continues after retirement age, because by not being able to make full contributions to Social Security during their working years, these veterans also suffer a loss of income in their retirement years. Disabled veterans literally rely on this benefit to make ends meet every month and I am urging Congress to maintain full funding of this earned protection.

Unfortunately, the recent budget released by the administration cuts this benefit for veterans at retirement age, claiming it’s a duplication of benefits. This reasoning is flawed and shortsighted. It is certainly true that our nation needs more fiscal discipline, but it is wrong to balance budgets on the backs of injured veterans. Reducing or eliminating this program for veterans of Social Security age would negatively affect more than 225,000 veterans. I have already written an appeal to leaders in Congress and will continue to fight for the full restoration of this critical and earned benefit.

A second issue relates to the VA’s service to veterans. The VA has been plagued with failures, including outrageous wait times, lost medical records, inadequate care, and avoidable deaths. Many Americans would be shocked to learn that the VA has become so bureaucratic that the VA secretary does not even have the authority to fire a bad employee, even under the most egregious circumstances. Examples of this include the inability to dismiss an employee who engaged in an armed robbery; discipline a nurse who participated in a veteran’s surgery while intoxicated; and fire a pharmacist who overprescribed narcotics that led to a veteran’s death. This is a travesty and cannot continue.

In response, Congress recently passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. This is real reform that was signed into law Friday by President Trump. This legislation gives VA Secretary David Shulkin the ability to fire a bad employee by creating a new streamlined and efficient process to remove, demote, or suspend any VA employee for poor performance or misconduct. It also provides expanded protections for whistleblowers and would specifically bar the VA from using this removal authority if the employee has an open whistleblower complaint or case with the Office of Special Counsel. There are many terrific employees at the VA who are dedicated and truly serve veterans, but the bad ones need to be held accountable and removed.

Oftentimes when I’m speaking with veterans in my district, I’m reminded of a quote from early in our nation’s history — many ascribe it to George Washington. The author said, “the willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”

This quote is as true today as it was in 1776. Doing right by our veterans is paying a debt of gratitude. It is equally a down payment on the next generation of war fighters, who are watching to see that our nation keeps its commitments. We can and we must provide better care for our veterans. This starts by ensuring veterans receive protections they have earned and by bringing real accountability to the VA.

U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (R.) represents New Jersey’s Third Congressional District.