Opinion Editorials

More than a year after I led the fight in Congress to pass major bipartisan legislation that enacted the most significant VA reform in a decade, the system is still not working for our veterans.

I am frustrated and outraged by the slow nature of change at the VA. I know our veterans are, too.

Reports of mismanagement and misconduct at VA facilities in Arizona appear almost daily. In just the past few weeks, allegations of whistleblower retaliation, poor care and staff retention problems have swirled around the Tucson VA. And in the Phoenix VA, sanitation issues in the operating rooms forced postponement of surgeries for more than 50 veterans.

Congress has provided the VA with billions in emergency funding to hire more doctors and nurses, tools to tackle never-ending wait times, and the authority to more easily fire corrupt executives. So why is the VA still failing our veterans?

I have long argued that veterans should have the flexibility to see a doctor of their choice in their community, and insisted that the VA Choice Card be part of the VA reform bill enacted last year.

Today, the VA Choice Card is working for many of our veterans across the country. In fact, more than 3,000 veterans per day use the card to receive timely and quality care.

Unfortunately, the VA has been reluctant to fully implement this critical program. It hasn’t laid out a plan of action or associated milestones that would ensure the program’s full and effective implementation.

Bureaucratic red tape continues to mount.

My office has received complaints of sloppy administrative work and trouble faxing or mailing medical records to the community doctor’s office. The Tucson VA, in particular, has been slow to correct these problems. We have also heard of instances in which doctors have been forced to send medical bills to veterans directly and then later to collections.

Worst of all, many veterans don’t even know the Choice Card program exists. The VA has been slow to inform veterans they are eligible to access it and educate patients about how to use it.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In addition to calling attention to the VA’s implementation failures, I'm making it my top priority to help educate veterans about their health-care options both inside and outside of the VA.

How the Choice Card should work

Here’s an example of how the Choice Card program should work:

At a field hearing on the VA Choice Card last December, one veteran cited a backlog of 3,000 veterans in the Phoenix area needing to see urologists due to a shortage of specialists at the VA. Doctors within the community were contacted to take on some of the VA patients, and citizens without urgent urology issues actually volunteered to wait a few weeks so that a veteran could be seen faster.

Because of the VA Choice Card and help from the community, that backlog was eliminated in roughly 90 days, and veterans are now able to schedule a urology appointment within days instead of months. This type of success could become the norm with a fully and correctly implemented VA Choice Card.

I am committed to making the Choice Card a permanent option and am working with Sen. Johnny Isakson, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs committee, on the best path forward.

I have introduced a bill to eliminate the arbitrary requirement that a veteran has to wait 30 days or live 40 miles from a VA to qualify to see another doctor in the community. Retirees on Medicare and most Americans with employer insurance don’t have to worry about miles or days. Why should our veterans?

There are strides being made but the progress is too slow and the advances too insufficient for veterans who are suffering. They need a functioning system today, and I believe the VA Choice Card can help them now.

Any veteran who needs care and qualifies for the VA Choice Card should call 866-606-8198 to check eligibility and make an appointment.  They can also call my office at 602-952-2410.

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