It was over a year ago that the public learned of unacceptably long wait times and false record keeping at the Department of Veterans Affairs, resulting in shoddy care for our service men and women.
Since then, instead of progress, we have been met with ongoing reports of delayed care, wasteful spending, and poor management. This June, the New York Times reported that "[t]he number of veterans seeking health care but ending up on waiting lists of one month or more is 50 percent higher now than it was a year ago…" And this past July, a whistleblower came forward with claims that the VA purposely delayed action on the benefit applications of 34,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some until their eligibility expired.
Some have suggested we solve the VA's shortfalls by throwing money at the problem, but we've already seen the results of that strategy. From 2006 to 2015, the VA budget nearly doubled, from $31 billion to $59 billion per year, yet performance has only deteriorated.
The VA is desperately in need of transformation, but we have yet to see meaningful action to repair what's broken.
We must do better.
As a first step, I collaborated with several other leaders in the field of veterans' health to publish a comprehensive report last February, presenting an array of concrete and actionable proposals for VA health care reform. The report, "Fixing Veterans Health Care," was the product of a six-month process of careful study and deliberation through which our bipartisan task force identified key challenges in the VA health care system and developed workable solutions.
In formulating recommendations, we received input from policymakers on both sides of the aisle, from health care providers treating our veterans, and most importantly, from the veterans themselves.
Among our proposals aimed at transforming the VA:
- Give veterans the option to seek private health care using VA funds, similar to the way health programs like Medicare and Tricare work;
- Restructure the Veterans Health Administration within the VA as an independent, government-chartered nonprofit corporation to improve competitiveness and accountability; and
- Focus care on those veterans with health needs connected to their military service, thus prioritizing care to those who need it most.
These proposals are based on the needs of veterans, and form the basis of model legislation, the Veterans Independence Act — a concrete and actionable reform package aimed at making the VA system more effective and efficient.
One of the act's key features is to provide veterans with a choice in the care they receive. A new report issued by the VA Office of the Inspector General found that more than 307,000 veterans died before their applications for care were processed. This is shameful.
For those who are not receiving the care they want or deserve, they should have the option to take their earned health care funds and use them to purchase private health coverage at a discounted veterans' rate, scaled by disability level and income. It would be structured similarly to the Medicare program, which receives high marks from its beneficiaries.
The VA has made some changes in this vein, allowing veterans to seek private care when they are unable to schedule an appointment at a VA clinic within 40 miles of their home within 30 days. While this is a positive step to help address the backlog, nearly 432,000 VA appointments are for dates more than 30 days out as of April this year.
It's past time to restore veterans health to the center of the VA mission, and the Fixing Veterans Health Care task force report and the Veterans Independence Act offer one road map for how to get there.
Others may disagree with our proposals — such is the nature of policymaking — but a vigorous debate can serve to test and strengthen any proposal. We must continue the conversation and look forward: What would you do to reform the way VA health care is delivered?
Bill Frist, a Republican, represented Tennessee in the Senate from 1995 to 2007 and was Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2007.