I’m spending this Veterans Day nearly 7,000 miles away with our armed forces in Afghanistan. I see the bravery and determination on the faces and in the hearts of our troops here. These are our heroes of today and our veterans of tomorrow. Once these courageous men and women are back on U.S. soil, they’ll need somewhere to turn for their health care. I’m working to make sure they have the absolute best care possible.
By now, many of us have heard the horror stories of veterans who died waiting for care at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix. The high-profile scandal exposed widespread problems at the VA and veterans nationwide are still dealing with unacceptably long waits and other service issues.
Enough is enough! This is an embarrassment. Our nation’s veterans have sacrificed and earned more than to put up with substandard care. That’s why I’ve put forward a plan that cuts out red tape to allow area veterans to get the top-quality care they deserve when they need it.
I’m leading a bipartisan effort in Congress to put a stop to the wait times and ensure veterans can receive care at the health facility of their choice using their VA insurance. The Veterans Freedom of Health Care Act, which I introduced, is supported by Democrats, Republicans, local veterans organizations and health care providers. The act would ensure a veteran could see a doctor when they want. Not when the VA can see them.
Congress took steps last year to address the ongoing scandal by creating a pilot program known as Veterans Choice that allows those who’ve been waiting 30 days or more and live 40 miles or more from a VA facility to receive care outside the VA system. While I applaud that effort, it was designed only for the most rural areas of our country and thousands of veterans living in South Jersey and the Philadelphia region are still waiting for change.
Right now, local veterans can endure up to eight-hour commutes to the Philadelphia VA because many, particularly the elderly and those with disabilities, rely on group transports that must make many stops before reaching the facility. Along their way, they pass by some of the best health care systems that our country has to offer, right in South Jersey. Yet on any given day, more than 6,000 local heroes have been waiting more than a month just to get an appointment at the VA, because they have no other choice.
Take the case of Robert, an 85-year-old Korean War Veteran from Camden County who has an aneurysm in his upper aorta. Robert’s primary care doctor recommended the Army veteran schedule an appointment with a VA specialist to examine his aorta and determine if he needed surgery. Robert called the Philadelphia VA for two weeks, each time getting a recorded greeting. He left messages. After a month, still no return calls. Out of concern and desperation, Robert asked his primary doctor, also part of the VA, to intervene. His doctor’s office got through and got Robert an appointment for December. In all, it will have been a three-month ordeal simply getting an appointment for a possible life and death matter for this treasured veteran.
That’s simply unacceptable. We can and must do better for the men and women who risked their lives for our freedoms. The VA and its workers are a valued source of care for many. But, while the VA system undergoes much-needed reforms to reestablish itself as a trusted partner for care, the immediate health care needs of our veterans cannot wait. They deserve same-day appointments with their family doctors when they are sick, premium mental health services and access to the specialty care currently available to our nation’s Medicare patients.
Our veterans should never have to wait a month or more to get the care they need — they deserve treatment that is not just as good as, but better than, any member of Congress. Many didn’t have the choice when it came to military service. Now they deserve a choice. A choice of where they wish to go for health care, and when. They gave their best service to our country. They deserve the best service America can provide.
Donald Norcross represents New Jersey’s 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.