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Another View -- Ann McLane Kuster: Keeping our commitment to veterans

March 13. 2017 9:48PM

RECENTLY, I had the opportunity to sit down with veterans in the North Country to discuss the unique challenges facing veterans in rural America. It is clear veterans throughout New Hampshire and the country have been let down by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Years of mismanagement have led to distrust in the system. That lack of trust is understandable, but it’s time we begin to look to the future and what we can accomplish together.

There has been much trepidation about the new administration. Make no mistake; there are many areas in which that concern is warranted. But I genuinely believe supporting our men and women who have served in uniform transcends politics. Though we may differ on approach, we all share the same goal of expanding access to care and improving the quality of services for our veterans.

In his address to a Joint Session of Congress, President Trump committed to increasing funding for our veterans, and said, “Our veterans have delivered for this nation — and now we must deliver for them.”

I share his sentiment, and that’s why since I came to Congress, I’ve fought for changes at the VA. The challenges facing the agency weren’t created overnight and they won’t be solved quickly, but we’re beginning to see encouraging changes at the VA. As the lead Democrat on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I’ve put accountability of VA employees first and have looked to cut waste and abuse within the agency. We’ve made progress, and I’m hopeful that the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin will be a willing partner in this effort.

There are many dedicated and well-intentioned employees at the VA who are genuinely committed to caring for our veterans. But unfortunately they are stymied by an entrenched bureaucracy that makes change difficult. From my leadership position on the Oversight and Investigation subcommittee, I’ll push for more accountability among VA employees to weed out those who are standing in the way of progress. For instance, I’ve called for criminal investigations into VA employees who may have misled Congress about waste and cost overruns at the Aurora, Colo., VA medical center and voted to increase accountability for senior VA executives. We need to send a strong message that incompetence — or worse, deception — will not be tolerated.

Veterans, regardless of where they live, must be able to access the health care they need and deserve. To ensure that veterans in rural areas are able to access the same level of care as those in Boston or Manchester, we need to be innovative and look for solutions that fit the unique challenges in the North Country.

I’m encouraged by the development of the Care Coordinator model to facilitate care between the VA and community providers in rural parts of the state. This program has the potential to improve the Veterans Choice Program, which has struggled to effectively provide care for veterans. A one-size-fits-all plan is not going to satisfy the needs of veterans and their families in areas where there is limited access to a full service VA medical center. We must ensure the VA has the flexibility to offer integrated care in rural communities so that veterans don’t need to drive hundreds of miles for appointments.

In the new Congress, I’m optimistic about what we can achieve to better the lives of veterans in New Hampshire and nationally. Nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every single day in our country. That’s a stain on our collective conscience, and we can do better. When our brave men and women in uniform return home, they must have all our support in the transition to civilian life and overcoming the physical and psychological wounds of war.

My father served in World War II as a fighter pilot, and spent six months in a German POW camp after being shot down in France. The issue of care for our veterans is deeply personal to me and my family. We need to help veterans access meaningful employment. We need to finally make good on our promise to veterans of all generations who were exposed to Agent Orange and other toxins. We need to ensure no veteran lives without a roof over their head.

You are all my partners in this effort. Please share with me your thoughts, concerns and suggestions for how we can improve the VA. You can always call my office at 226-1002. I look forward to hearing from and working with you.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster represents New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District.

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