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Sanders' Veteran Bill Asphyxiates the VA System

Feb 23, 2014

Most Americans would agree that those who have sacrificed in service of this nation deserve the care and gratitude of their government. The importance of quality veteran care is undeniable, but members of Congress must be careful not to simply support any measure with the word "veteran" in the title.

This week, the Senate is likely to consider S.1982, an omnibus veterans bill sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). As a veteran who uses the Veteran's Administration hospitals for service-related injuries, I measured the projected benefits of the Senate bill against the projected costs. In doing so it became clear to me that S.1982 does very little to improve services to our veterans; indeed, it actually may make things worse in some of the most vital programs, adding roughly $20 billion in new debt along the way.

From a personal perspective, and given that many of my fellow veterans have been badly injured in combat, ensuring that veterans receive the care they need in an efficient manner is of the utmost importance. As it stands today, those who have health needs that go beyond the most basic of care-for instance, those who need to see a specialist-often have to wait months for consultation and treatment. S.1982 entitles health care in the VA system to anyone who has ever served regardless of need. Adding millions of new patients, along with their accompanying paperwork and administrative entanglements, will only worsen the efficiency and quality of care for those veterans who need it the most.

How inefficient is the current system?

I recently contacted the VA to inquire about how to update my marital status. I was given a form to fill out and eventually learned it would take them seven or eight months to process it and alter their database. Mind you, this was the time table for a minor status update. Hundreds of thousands of veterans are experiencing the same (or much longer) delay on matters significantly more urgent, such as VA disability paperwork. Rather than address the crippling backlog, the Senate's "Veterans Health and Benefits" bill will further exacerbate the problem.

S.1982 also adds fifteen new programs, many of which are duplicative at not just the federal but the state, local, and private sector levels, as well. The VA spends billions of dollars on programs to aid veterans in skills training, resume writing, employment databases, etc. At present there are six job-finder programs, and this bill does nothing to consolidate effective practices or eliminate the failed ones. Most of what the new programs will offer can usually be obtained through a very generous G.I. Bill package that pays for college or technical schools, many of which have extensive training and workforce preparation programs that cater to veterans directly.

In my home state, the Texas Workforce Commission caters directly to veteran employment. Most moderate-to-large sized cities have similar job training and development programs, and the private sector and non-profit effort to assist veterans is tremendous.

The biggest hurdle to efficiently taking care of those veterans who truly need help is not something that a new program or more money can address. More words on paper are not what the overburdened VA system needs. The biggest hurdle is now, and has always been, that the VA is a government program; and even though it's well funded, it behaves like a government program.

Instead of doubling down on past and current mistakes, we need to take a step back and address its many systemic flaws, incorporate bold new reforms, and provide local administrators and doctors the ability and incentive to improve their approach to the hurdles they encounter.

Ultimately, the best way we can help veterans is by reducing their need to use the VA.

This will not be achieved by expanding government care and services, but instead through a strong economy, fewer tax burdens, and private sector job creation. A stable veteran base will ensure that those who really need VA health benefits will receive the best care possible and in a timely manner. Those policies that will improve the VA in substantive and positive ways will not add millions of new patients through a plethora of new programs.

Conservatives must urge their members of Congress to have the courage to vote against legislation that does little to advance veteran care. Putting the word "veteran" in the title of a bill does not give politicians license to asphyxiate the VA system at tremendous cost to the country.