Last month, the Veterans Affairs Department informed Congress that it needed additional funding, or it would run out of money to pay for community-based care, and even be forced to shut down some hospital operations.

Fortunately, two weeks ago, Congress gave VA the authorization to use over $3 billion from the Veterans Choice Program to cover the shortfall. But while $3 billion is a lot of money, it is only a short-term fix. It's keeping hospital doors open, but it's not addressing the long-term problems plaguing the VA, including a rapidly aging infrastructure.

Since the waiting-list crisis broke last year, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee has held a record number of hearings covering a range of topics — many focused on VA's failures related to leasing issues, budget overruns for major construction projects, poor program management and lack of accountability. These failures have made Congress hesitant to give VA more money without seeing real reforms first.

VA is at a crossroads. The patience of Congress is wearing thin. The new business and management changes that VA Secretary Bob McDonald is working on are not happening fast enough for some, and new proposals are coming out seemingly every day debating what the future course of VA should be.

Reform of the VA must happen. We cannot wait any longer. Veterans deserve a stronger, healthier VA.

But we need smart reform; otherwise, veterans will be the ones who pay the price.

There are proposals to downsize the VA system, perhaps creating centers of excellence for war-related injuries and requiring veterans to seek all routine care outside the VA. Others propose giving veterans a payment card to find needed services on their own in the private health care market.

There is even a proposal to privatize the system and have veterans pay more to get all their care in the community. We've warned that these type of proposals would fracture the comprehensive model of care that veterans can and do receive today — and even risk eliminating VA as a direct provider of care altogether.

Let me be clear: We are not satisfied with the state of VA today, and we are not advocating for the status quo. The VA must be reformed from top to bottom and the focus must once again be squarely on veterans.

As difficult as it has been to see the VA falter, as its management failures continue to be highlighted under intense media scrutiny, we see this moment as an opportunity for VA to make the necessary changes and reforms that have been sorely needed. It's our opportunity to build a system of universal quality, solely dedicated to caring for those who have served and have been impacted by the rigors and sacrifices of military and wartime service.

But VA must get it right. Last month, Disabled American Veterans proposed a framework to "rebuild, restructure, realign and reform" the VA health care system.

First: Rebuild VA's capacity to provide timely, high-quality care with a long-term strategy to recruit, hire and retain enough clinical and support staff to meet the true demand for care.

Second: Restructure and consolidate VA's community care programs into a single extended-care network that incorporates the best features of all existing care programs — including the Choice program — with a separate and guaranteed funding mechanism.

Third: Realign and expand VA health care services to meet the diverse needs of future veterans, including women veterans and those who reside in rural and remote regions far from VA facilities.

Fourth: Reform VA's culture and management by increasing transparency, accountability and oversight.

Now is the time for Congress and VA leadership to work together — with us — to resolve the complex problems that exist, and to create a system that reflects our country's true commitment to those who served.

Joy Ilem is the national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans. This opinion piece is a lightly edited excerpt from her speech delivered Aug. 10 at the DAV National Convention in Denver.

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