The brave men and women who have worn our nation’s uniform deserve our honor and our kept promises. South Carolina’s approximately 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 eleven community based outpatient facilities around the state.
That is why this spring when news reports of widespread mismanagement problems and “secret” waiting lists at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ medical facilities broke, I, like, so many Americans, was extremely troubled.
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 have long fought to end the VA claims backlog, voted against veterans’ pensions 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 South Carolina facilities, I went directly to the local leadership of both Dorn and Johnson to get answers. After talking with both leaders, they both 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, in late July, I voted for the bi-partisan Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which overwhelmingly passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives 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 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 the U.S. Department 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 VA. Combined, they provide the agency a real opportunity to provide better access to healthcare 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.
Mr. Scott represents South Carolina in the U.S. Senate; email him from www.scott.senate.gov/contact or follow him on Twitter @SenatorTimScott.