As President Obama signed Veterans Affairs reform legislation Thursday, he remarked on the rare example of Democrats and Republicans uniting. “This will not and cannot be the end of our effort,” he said.
The immediate result will be to let veterans see private doctors if they’ve been waiting longer than a month for medical appointments or live more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Vets could do that in the past, but now the government will pick up the tab. This solution doesn’t quite match up to the nation’s promise to care for veterans, but it begins to keep faith. It offers hope to those who can’t wait weeks, months or years for medical attention.
The wide-ranging law, estimated to cost $16.3 billion, also tackles other VA problems. It hires thousands of doctors, nurses and counselors over the next few years; opens 27 new clinics within two years, and makes it easier for the VA to discipline and dismiss employees who don’t meet acceptable standards.
And it’s not enough.
Paul Reickhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America terms the legislation “a Band-Aid” solution, noting that the law doesn’t address long delays in processing disability claims or soaring levels of suicide and homelessness among veterans.
Laws must be implemented effectively, which has not been the VA’s strong suit. The VA needs an overhaul that will gut its inefficient command structure, replacing it with a culture of communication, transparency and accountability. If and when this happens, we will have moved beyond first-aid, and the process of real healing can begin.