Taking stock of the Department of Veterans Affairs

In an event that brought together both sides of the political aisle to discuss the state of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Michael O’Hanlon hosted Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), chairman and member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs respectively. Their November 4 conversation highlighted both the strengths of and the challenges to the VA, and in the process the congressmen offered innovative policy recommendations for improving the department. Together, they noted that they intend to be both the VA’s staunchest supporters and harshest critics.

What Veterans Affairs does well

Miller was quick to praise the nearly 330,000 employees at the VA who take on responsibilities well beyond Abraham Lincoln’s initial vision for the department. Specifically, he cited the excellent work done by the National Cemetery Administration, and referencing his homebuilding background, praised VA home mortgage loans.

Walz commended VA facilities for offering some of the best health care in the world and for conducting cutting edge research into specific battlefield traumas, such as extremity injuries. Overall, “[The VA] is an integral part of our health care system in general,” but when the agency is asked to operate outside its core competencies or operate with inept administration, it gets bogged down.

Where the VA struggles

Where Miller sees significant room for improvement, however, is in the Veterans Benefits Administration and the Veterans Heath Administration: “We still have wait lists, some unrealistic wait times.” Echoing that sentiment, Walz urged the VA to focus on providing 21st century medicine in a timely and cost effective way rather than build hospitals. The system, he added, is failing to keep up with modern health care opportunities.

How to improve the VA health care system

Asked what has been done over the last two presidential administrations to effectively improve the VA, Walz commended the greater outreach to veterans to simply make them aware of the services available, while Miller applauded more extensive transitional services for those leaving active duty.

But the VA needs to focus on doing what they do well, which Miller explained is the “poly-trauma centers, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury centers, the amputees, and the things that are most critical that the VA does better than anyone in the world.” Otherwise, veterans should have the option to pursue care from private providers.

Moreover, Walz advocated the use of electronic medical records that would help enable a public-private system of care. He added that an “[e]lectronic medical record is not just a database, it is a diagnostic tool” that can help predict patient needs and enable continuity of care.