We stand by our veterans

By Sen. Angus King | Jun 26, 2014

We may not be able to agree on many things in Washington, but at least when it comes to our veterans, there is still broad bipartisan support — as there should be.

Our veterans defended our country and the many freedoms we enjoy today. And just as they stood up for us around the world, we need to stand up for them here at home. The Veterans' Access to Care through Choice, Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, which passed the Senate June 11, brings us a step closer towards fulfilling that obligation. This bill, which passed by an overwhelming 93-3 vote, proves that we will support our veterans and do what’s right when it comes to fixing problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Like my colleagues, I was appalled to learn of the widespread mismanagement at VA healthcare facilities across the country and was even more disturbed by the VA Office of Inspector General’s recent findings that a number of VA employees had been purposefully manipulating schedules to conceal the unconscionably-long wait times that veterans have been forced to endure before receiving the care that they need. Quite simply, the system has failed many of our veterans — and that’s why the legislation passed in the Senate is so important.

The bill, which was negotiated by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, includes several provisions to prevent future mismanagement as well as some much needed reforms to improve our veterans’ access to care and benefits services.

While the VA problems that we have seen nationally are infuriating and must be addressed, we must also remember that here in Maine, we have one of the highest quality VA healthcare and benefits systems in the country. I recently spoke with the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary in Bangor, whose members know firsthand the commitment to excellence demonstrated by employees at the VA Medical Center at Togus, our Vet Centers, Community Based Outpatient Clinics, Maine Veterans Homes, the Regional Benefits Office, and other veterans’ resources throughout the state.

The VA’s internal access audit, published June 9, found that 99 percent of veterans who seek healthcare services at Togus are able to schedule a visit within 30 days. Now obviously we want that number to be 100 percent, but the numbers illustrate that veterans in Maine are getting the care and support services they need and deserve. And while clearly Maine isn’t part of the problem, we can be part of the solution.

A perfect example of how Maine serves as a model for improving veterans’ healthcare services is through the Access Received Closer to Home (ARCH) program. This three year pilot program allows veterans in Aroostook country to receive specialty care at a private hospital in Caribou rather than being required to drive over 400 miles roundtrip to the VA hospital at Togus. This model not only saves the VA system money through reduced travel reimbursement, but also enables our veterans living in northern Maine to more easily schedule a medical appointment in their own community.

Despite its resounding success, this program is still set to expire at the end of September. In an effort to prevent this, and ensure that our veterans don’t experience any lapse in care, Senator Collins and I have sent two separate letters to Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson requesting that the VA maintain this program. ARCH provides important services for Maine’s veterans, and we’re doing what we can to protect it and the veterans who depend on it. One veteran who benefits from the program explained, “It’s the best thing since peanut butter.”

The uncertain future of the ARCH program is a stark reminder that, although we’ve passed a VA reform bill in the Senate, it’s far too early to declare victory. Before the bill can be signed into law, the Senate version and House version must go to what’s called a Conference Committee so that the differences between them can be worked out.

Though this process may take some time, those of us in Washington have a responsibility to keep the momentum on this issue moving forward. Our veterans served for us, and we have an obligation to keep serving them.

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