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Another View -- Maura Sullivan: Inconsistent leadership has failed our veterans

April 19. 2018 11:46PM

Over the last five months of our campaign, I have met dozens of veterans statewide and the caregivers who serve them at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center. What I hear is frustration with the low quality of care — and how lacking resources and leadership at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hamstrings local caregivers. Instability at the top, heightened in recent weeks by the replacement of former Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, only worsens local problems. I know because as a VA assistant secretary appointed by President Obama, I worked to improve veterans’ health care. What our veterans and the caregivers who serve them need — and need now — is reform, resources, and strong leadership that delivers the best care, not partisan politics and chaos. Without it, I expect we will hear more heartbreaking stories like these:

One veteran I met at an American Legion Post in Portsmouth said he must drive 45 minutes to the VA in Manchester, but often can’t get the care he needs. He wonders what the VA can do to bring care to him, as I’ve seen local VA hospitals do elsewhere for veterans residing more than 40 miles from the nearest center.

A VA caregiver I spoke with at Red Arrow Diner in Manchester said she sees with her own eyes the lack of resources, and it breaks her heart. She wonders where the federal dollars are to ensure we don’t fall short when it matters most for our veterans.

A veteran from Conway told me access to mental health care is difficult to access. He wonders how we can bring to Manchester the insights and expertise of top VA mental health care centers elsewhere in the VA system.

Unfortunately, crisis at the top of the VA is not new. Four years ago this spring, it came out that 40 veterans had died awaiting care at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Our system and our government failed them. As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, I proudly joined the leadership team in 2014 that fought to fix the VA. Together, we worked to implement the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014. We initiated reforms like improving VA care for veterans who were on waitlists greater than 30 days and lived more than 40 miles from a hospital. “Choice,” as the bill is called, was imperfect, like many bills, but a helpful step forward. We were optimistic about the VA’s future.

Now, the VA will have its fourth secretary in less than four years. And our veterans and caregivers alike in Manchester and elsewhere district-wide suffer because of it.

And it’s not just Manchester. The VA is one of the largest agencies in the federal government — administering care for more than 9 million enrolled veterans, at more than 1,200 health care facilities nationwide, with a budget of over $180 billion. Imagine a business with four CEOs in four years — what is the impact? Likely a lot of frustration, minimal progress, and backsliding.

Augmenting the VA’s current care with private providers is necessary — we did it while I was at the VA to clear waitlist backlogs and put fewer veterans at risk. This is particularly important for specialties like mental health and routine care for veterans in more remote areas. However, private care is no panacea. We need public and private care. Most importantly, veterans want and need both.

Some would argue that choosing both is expensive. It is. But so is war. In so many ways, the Bush administration hid the true cost of the war in Iraq, a theater I served in and a war I saw firsthand become one of the worst foreign policy blunders of our lifetimes.

The federal government needs to invest in our veterans and their families with the same rigor we apply to nearly $700 billion in defense spending. It’s time Congress appoint a bipartisan commission to determine how best to improve our care for the brave men and women who serve our country.

Our country has some of the best health care capabilities in the world. But more than they should, our veterans struggle to access them. One out of 14 Americans has served in the military. They have earned easy access to the very best care we can offer. The answer to how we get there should be about resources and outcomes, not politics. Our veterans and their caregivers deserve nothing less.

Maura Sullivan, a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and Iraq veteran, is a Democratic candidate for New Hampshire’s First Congressional District.

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