WITH THIS SPRING'S revelations that wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals and medical centers were much worse than we thought and symptomatic of institutional failures, the need for action became apparent and immediate. After some back-and-forth, Congress was able to pass a bipartisan bill, which I supported. The new law, just signed last Thursday, is a big step that will help the VA become the system our veterans deserve.
As the spouse of a veteran and a longtime advocate for all New Hampshire's vets, I have always understood that our veterans face too many obstacles. Here in the 1st District, full and easy access to VA care has been particularly difficult because New Hampshire does not have a full-service VA hospital or equivalent access.
The new law will allow veterans for the first time to use their VA card for private care if they live far away from a VA facility (more than 40 miles) or have to wait too long for an appointment. The plan - that if veterans can't get needed services from the VA they should be able to visit private doctors and facilities - is the one I discussed with then-VA Secretary James Peake in 2007, when veterans had far fewer treatment options in New Hampshire.
By working with the VA, I was able to secure a contract with Concord Hospital for acute care, so those vets wouldn't have to make the trip to Massachusetts for inpatient procedures, and we added a mental health facility in Manchester and a clinic in Conway. Although these new facilities have made many veterans' lives healthier and easier, they certainly cannot fill in all the gaps. We still have too many vets - often our oldest and sickest - being forced to travel to Massachusetts or Vermont for necessary care, a grueling trip that often takes all day.
To guarantee that all New Hampshire vets can access the full range of medical services available in other states, I introduced a bill in 2008 called the Veterans Health Equity Act. This bill would ensure that veterans in every state have access to either a full-service VA hospital or equivalent in-state private care. Since I first wrote and introduced the Veterans Health Equity Act, it has been reintroduced or cosponsored by every single member of the New Hampshire congressional delegation, past and present.
My bill has had bipartisan support because it's been clear to all that if the VA is unable to address a veteran's needs, then a private New Hampshire medical professional should. Now, after seeing how overwhelmed the VA system is, the rest of the country is on the same page. The new VA reform law will apply nationwide, helping American veterans obtain timely care, no matter where they live.
As a former military spouse, I'm proud to work on the congressional subcommittee that is responsible for military families' well being. I know firsthand that our troops risk not only their lives and health - they and their families also make great personal sacrifices to protect us.
In exchange for these sacrifices, we must keep our promises to them. We owe them much more than a thank you. We owe them a lifetime of high-quality health care that's timely and close by. If our veterans are not receiving this care from today's VA, we must offer them an alternative.
While the new VA reform law is a big achievement, and will offer veterans private care, the law says the care will only be available for up to three years. We still need a permanent plan for those who live too far away from a VA center. Congress needs to make access to private care for those veterans permanent. It's not much to ask, especially when compared with all we have asked of our veterans.
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter represents New Hampshire's 1st District in Congress, where she serves on the House Armed Services Committee.