Column by U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman
Even as the chorus for reform at the VA grows louder, VA officials and the Obama Administration continue to deny the problems. Newspaper headlines trumpet stories of long wait lines, wasted taxpayer dollars, and an out-of-control bureaucracy But VA leadership and this Administration simply don’t get it.
As a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I have tackled a number of issues surrounding VA reform.
Aurora VA Hospital & VA construction: After multiple delays and hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns, I, along with the Colorado Delegation, secured funding and a completion date for the Aurora hospital. I also led the charge to strip VA of construction authority transferring it to the Army Corps of Engineers. VA can focus on providing services to our veterans.
Wait times: Horrific stories of long waits for medical care have, unfortunately, become the norm at VA facilities across the country. Although, we still have much to do, after multiple hearings on the issue, our collective work culminated in the Choice Act, which finally allows veterans to seek care from a private provider. Now we have to get the VA to get the VA to actually allow the Choice Act to work rather than working to make it fail.
Protecting whistle blowers: Long wait lines, poor service, and wasted taxpayer dollars, those of us on the Committee hear constant stories of them thanks to brave whistle blowers. Unfortunately, in many cases, these whistle blowers are persecuted by VA leadership not thanked for revealing these problems. After lengthy investigations and hearings, I am a co-sponsor of the Whistleblower Protection Act (HR 1994). We must protect these individuals who step forward and stand against corruption.
Wasted taxpayer dollars: There are significant procurement problems within the VA. The result is billions of dollars in inappropriate purchases. These include paying too much, not correctly bidding contracts, and buying the wrong items. Thanks to a whistleblower we have learned of this and held multiple hearings on the issue. Now I am working with the committee to craft a procurement reform package of legislation.
Cutting bureaucratic red tape: In 2015, I introduced the Veteran Owned Small Business Improving Opportunities for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Businesses Act of 2015. Currently, veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses face incredible challenges getting certified to seek and secure contracts from the VA. The bill I introduced reforms, streamlines, and simplifies the current process to certify these firms.
Focus on serving veterans: I am introducing legislation directing the VA to sell Pershing Hall, the five-star hotel it owns in Paris. The sale proceeds go toward funding VA construction and renovation projects here in the United States. VA needs to get out of the overseas hotel business and focus on serving our veterans.
Serving veteran needs: We continue to work on a number of issues specific to Veterans care including Gulf War Illness, Legionella, and suicide. According to VA’s 2012 Suicide Data Report, there are 22 veteran suicides per day totaling 8,000 per year. It is absolutely vital that we as a nation address the twin crisis of veteran suicide and mental health issues. Next month I plan to introduce legislation to improve access to mental health services for our veterans.
While we have made great progress for our veterans much work remains and regardless of what legislative changes we pass, fundamental change requires better leadership from the top of the VA and the administration. In a 2007 speech, candidate Obama promised to build a 21st century VA to serve our veterans and urged comprehensive reform. The time is now for President Obama to fulfill candidate Obama’s promise. We owe it to the men and women who serve our country.