In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln articulated a clear principle to guide our nation's commitment to military veterans. The goal, he said, should be "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."
That sentiment still resonates a century and a half later, and the Veterans Affairs Department adopted Lincoln's formulation as its motto. Yet as a string of VA scandals have come to light exposing shoddy patient care and bureaucratic malfeasance, it's fair to ask, what happened to that mission?
Like all government-sponsored health care, VA is largely run by political appointees and bureaucrats, rather than professionals with specialized training in health care administration and management. The government approach to fixing a problem is usually to add a new regulation or yet another policy, when sometimes the cleaner solution would be to de-regulate and simplify.
Unfortunately, VA has suffered from this practice, resulting in an increase in middle managers and regulations that drive up costs, stifle innovation and make the system less responsive to the veterans it aims to serve.
The obstacles to timely care have been apparent to those working in the VA system for years. Indeed, I have experienced firsthand the challenges in that system; I served as a VA staff surgeon in Nashville, Tennessee, an experience that informed my approach to veterans' issues when I later served in the Senate. I realize that VA simply must do better.
The patient scheduling scandal that arose in Phoenix this spring was simply the last straw. What made the revelations most appalling was the falsification of wait time records to ensure bonuses to administrators. That story suggests VA has lost sight of its true mission of service to veterans and their families.
In response, Congress wisely passed bipartisan legislation in July to bring greater accountability, transparency and patient choice to VA. Additionally, a new VA secretary, Robert McDonald, was appointed, with hopes that his fresh approach would lead the department in a new direction and institute some real change. Those were positive steps.
But those steps are only the beginning. The department has a long way to go both to restore the trust of our veterans and transform the current system into one that can deliver the timely, quality health care our veterans deserve.
So what next? The VA reform bill that passed earlier this year established a commission that will make independent recommendations that are due in early 2016. While this a worthy idea, we cannot continue to tell our veterans they will just have to wait.
It is essential that new ideas and fresh proposals, from outside VA and from all perspectives, be brought to the table for consideration. And we needed that to happen yesterday. Therefore, I am pleased to announce the formation of the Fixing Veterans Health Care policy taskforce, of which I will serve as one of five co-chairs.
My co-chairs on this taskforce, sponsored by the veterans advocacy organization Concerned Veterans for America, are Jim Marshall, a former Georgia congressman and Army Ranger, and two distinguished health care policy leaders — Dr. Mike Kussman, who served as the VA under secretary for health from 2007 to 2009, and Avik Roy, a health care scholar with the Manhattan Institute.
The goal of the taskforce is simple: Isolate existing challenges to veterans' health care, identify systemic solutions, and propose concrete reforms to improve care delivery for our nation's veterans. We will consult with the foremost health care management experts, former and current VA employees, members of Congress, and — most importantly — veterans and their families.
Through the submission portal on our taskforce website, we are actively seeking stories from veterans to get the most accurate story about what is going horribly, or well, in the VA system. We will then release a set of concrete recommendations in December that we hope will serve as the basis of reform legislation in the 114th Congress.
This taskforce will seek to think outside the box, challenge assumptions, and ask hard questions regarding the best possible way to deliver timely, efficient and effective care to our veterans. It seeks both short-term changes as well as systemic reform. And most importantly, the welfare of the veteran will be at the center of the coordinated patient care model we hope to recommend.
With politics, someone always disagrees, and we anticipate pushback from those who benefit from the status quo. But the status quo is unacceptable, and something has to change. It is on issues like these that we must employ bipartisan efforts and meet in the middle.
VA has changed before and they can do it again, which is why this taskforce is immensely important. Join us as we help the VA achieve the quality product our veterans deserve and we know they can deliver.
Bill Frist, M.D., is a cardiothoracic transplant surgeon. He represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate as a Republican from 1995-2007 and served as Senate majority leader from 2003 until his retirement in 2007. Submissions to the policy taskforce can be made at www.taskforce.cv4a.org.