Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

Opinion

June 3, 2014

Coats: Restoring trust in Dept. of Veterans Affairs

To correct flaws, we must change culture

What do you do when a sacred trust is broken?

Too many veterans in Indiana and across the country are asking this question.

These men and women who wore the uniform of the United States in combat did so with the expectation that their country would take care of them when they returned home. This is a sacred obligation that should rise above politics and always be a top priority in Washington.

Unfortunately, the federal department responsible for honoring that commitment – the Department of Veterans Affairs – has not provided acceptable care for many of those who served our nation.

Recent reports out of Phoenix and other VA facilities are shocking, outrageous and completely unacceptable. Allegations of patient backlogs, mismanagement and unreasonable disability claims review wait times undermine the integrity of the entire VA health and benefits system.

These allegations are not an isolated set of circumstances or an outlying example of gross incompetence. They are indicative of a bureaucratic culture of mismanagement and indifference to the needs of veterans.

I have visited our VA facilities in Indiana and met with many of the medical professionals who serve Hoosier veterans. These are hard-working, caring people who are doing their best to help, but the VA is plagued by problems that are larger than a few doctors or nurses.

For example, several months ago, one of my constituents – Frederick of Evansville – wrote to me about his experience with the department’s disabilities claims backlog. Frederick, a Vietnam War veteran, personally experienced these waiting times to get his claims processed. Unsurprisingly, this delay has negatively affected his quality of life.

Veterans’ claims are supposed to be processed in under 125 days, yet wait times at the VA facility in Indianapolis remain well above what our veterans deserve.

Our country has a duty to honor and support those like Frederick and other Hoosiers who made sacrifices to protect and defend our country.

While VA Secretary Eric Shinseki accepted responsibility for this scandal and resigned his appointment, this situation extends beyond one cabinet member’s control. Restoring trust in the VA will take more than the replacement of the Secretary. It requires a top-down review of our entire VA management structure.

If we are to correct the VA’s flaws, we must change its culture. Our nation’s veterans should not have to wait months on end to get a response to their disability claims nor should their lives be put at risk because of haphazard treatment.

Last month, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I voted in support of a funding bill for the VA for the next fiscal year that will give the VA Inspector General (IG) additional funding to allow a thorough review of these allegations nationwide. The IG recently issued an initial report that confirmed what many suspected — there are significant problems at the Phoenix facility, and “systemic” problems exist nationwide. As the IG expands its probe to additional facilities, I continue to support a full investigation to make sure we identify and prosecute those responsible for falsifying records and neglecting patient care.

Congress also must exercise oversight. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and I recently wrote to the VA expressing our deep concern about these widespread reports. We requested a prompt response outlining any issues related to Indiana facilities and an immediate course of action to rectify any issues. I intend to push for more answers in the coming weeks.

As a veteran, I expect my country to fulfill its promises to my fellow servicemen and women. We have over 500,000 veterans in the state of Indiana, and every one of these men and women deserve the best health care our country can offer.

What do you do when a sacred trust is broken? You work to earn back that trust. It is time for the VA to get to work.

 Sen. Dan Coats is a Republican from Indiana.

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