As a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, what trends have you been seeing the last couple of years regarding funding and legislation of the department in general and the VHA in particular?
Well, the VA has gotten more money in the last couple of budget cycles than in any time that I can remember. But the number of injuries coming from Iraq and Afghanistan and the need for VA services is also at an all-time high, really since World War II or Vietnam. We have a lot of service members being injured.
One thing that I’ve been pushing is for the VA to do more partnerships. The Charleston project is a good example of what I’m talking about. The VA wants to build a new hospital in Charleston, [S.C.]. It’s going to be a tremendous facility and I’m very pleased, generally speaking, with the quality of care being provided by the VA Gen. [Eric K.] Shinseki is a good guy to have in charge in an important time. But the Medical University of South Carolina also wants to build a new hospital.
So what we’ve done is created a partnership between the VA and the Medical University of South Carolina, where they can combine their resources and build a single hospital facility that serves both needs. The one thing I would like to see the VA do more of is collaboration with the civilian community.
I think it will be robust funding and support because the needs are growing exponentially.
Bipartisanship is hard to find in Washington, but it exists when it comes to wounded-warrior programs and taking care of the veteran. But the goal for me is to make sure that the VA is tied into other service networks. In my state there are a lot of people who have to travel a couple of hours in South Carolina to go to a VA health care center. I want them to be able to access their VA health care services closer to their homes. The VA clinics going out into rural areas are really helping veterans with chronic illnesses. So what I advocate is an expanded footprint where the VA will join forces with civilian health care networks to increase coverage.
There are a lot of health care providers out there that the VA could collaborate with, that would allow our veterans to get quality health care closer to home and, all in all, be a better deal for the government.
While the Department of Veterans Affairs and the VHA get strong endorsements for the volume, value, and quality of care they deliver to the customer base, there’s still criticism over the average of 175 days needed to get a response for a claim, an appeal, or other inquiry. What do you feel should be done to improve this particular metric?
The filing of a disability claim and the resolution of that claim take a long time. Far too long. We need to increase the number of hearing panels to allow the adjudication to go quicker. We just can’t – as a blanket policy – give everyone who applies benefits.
It is a process, where you authorize benefits based on merit and objective criteria. But the one thing that I understand pretty well is that we need to provide better support to organizations that assist veterans. They do a wonderful job.
I believe that it would be smart to allow veterans access to a lawyer, so they could help them put the paperwork together and present their case in a more organized fashion before the VA board or the hearing officer. The government should also pay their legal fees if they’re successful. I think that would help speed up things a great deal.
The more organized the veterans can be when they present their case, the better their chances of a successful clam. The veterans’ organizations do a good job helping get them organized, but most people who apply for Social Security have the benefit of a lawyer. I wouldn’t want the money for the legal support to come away from the federal budget, but I think that from a national point of view, allowing veterans legal assistance would be helpful to their cause. Just think about it. You know, if you’re a veteran out there, and you have a disability, you get all your records together and go sit down with a Veterans Affairs officer. They can help you, but it would also help make the case if you could secure the services of a lawyer, an expert in that area of the law. I think we ought to make that service more available to the veterans today.