The brave men and women who have worn our nation’s uniform deserve our honor and our kept promises. South Carolina’s 400,000 veterans rely on the services provided by the Wm. Jennings Bryan Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia, Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston and the 11 community-based outpatient facilities across the state.
That is why I, like, so many Americans, was extremely troubled when news reports broke of widespread mismanagement problems and secret waiting lists at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical facilities.
The exposure of mismanagement prompted me to lead a group of 24 Senate colleagues in asking for an immediate, independent investigation. Following that request, I wanted to hear directly from Palmetto State veterans, so in June, I hosted veteran listening sessions and office hours across South Carolina to learn first-hand the problems veterans are experiencing.
I long have fought to end the VA claims backlog, voted against veterans’ pension cuts and had staff working to assist veterans navigating through, but hearing from so many veterans, sharing similar experiences, prompted me to go directly to the VA secretary to demand answers.
And after the Obama administration did not respond to my initial request for answers about the 13 S.C. facilities, I went directly to the local leadership of Dorn and Johnson to get answers. Both leaders discussed how locally, it seems we are making improvements on wait times. We still have work that needs to be done, but the good news is that at least in this state, we have a collaborative effort to improve the quality of care experienced by our veterans.
Building on that hope to move this process forward, I voted for the bipartisan Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which overwhelmingly passed both the Senate and the House and was signed into law by President Obama earlier this month.
The new law will allow our veterans access to care outside of the VA system, if they are unable to get an appointment at a VA medical facility within 30 days or if they live more than 40 miles away from their nearest VA medical facility. It also allows the VA to open 27 new clinics across the country and hire more doctors, nurses and other medical professionals to serve our veterans.
At the same time, it increases accountability by empowering the secretary to fire or discipline employees for misconduct or poor performance. It also eliminated bonuses for VA officials this year in light of all the agency’s troubles.
That same week, I, along with all my other colleagues, voted to confirm former Procter & Gamble executive Robert McDonald to become our nation’s secretary of Veterans’ Affairs. Secretary McDonald brings a fresh perspective to the challenges facing the VA.
Both of these votes, I believe, are steps in the right direction for our veterans and the VA. Combined, they provide the agency a real opportunity to provide better access to health care for our deserving veterans and to provide more flexibility to modernize our veterans health-care system.
The problems at the VA nationally or Dorn and Johnson VA here in South Carolina are by no means solved, but the VA is moving in the right direction. I will continue to press for answers, accountability and access for the veterans who have worn our nation’s uniform, because they deserve nothing less.