VA makes progress, but work isn't done

By:  U.S. Senator Mazie K. Hirono
Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Veterans Day is a time to remember and honor the contributions and sacrifices of our nation's veterans. Our thanks to the 120,000 veterans in Hawaii.

In August, I chaired a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee field hearing on the state of veterans' health care in Hawaii. At the hearing, Oahu veteran Victor Craft testified: "The veteran is not a piece of paper to be shuffled through a never-ending corridor of administration. They are people."

Victor is right. We need to do a better job of keeping our commitment to veterans.

Earlier this year, it was revealed through a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) audit the wait time for new patient primary care appointments on Oahu was on average 145 days -- longer than anywhere else in the nation. The VA now says wait times have been reduced to 35 days. Progress has been made, but for me, the true test is what veterans tell me about their experiences with the VA.

Our servicemen and women deserve better.

My colleagues on the committee and I wrote the bipartisan Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act. This landmark law begins making necessary reforms to the VA to restore trust and put veterans first.

Today, this legislation is being implemented by the VA, and important health care provisions of that law are beginning to become reality, such as:

» The first Veterans Choice Cards were just mailed on Nov. 5, to eligible veterans to access private care. These cards were created to ensure access for veterans who live 40 miles or more from a VA health facility or need to travel by air and are unable to obtain an appointment within 30 days.

» New penalties for VA employees who falsify data regarding access to care or quality measures.

» Independent assessments to provide VA a way to transparently review vital programs, organizations and business practices to make VA more accountable to veterans.

I was able to include provisions in the bill that will expand access to services and facilities for Hawaii's veterans. The VA is starting the planning process for the VA Advance Leeward Outpatient Healthcare Access Center, which was authorized under the law. The law also includes authority for the VA to enter into contracts or agreements with the Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems for reimbursement of direct care services. I'll push for these provisions to be implemented.

The difficulties within the VA health care system did not begin this year and fixing them will take more than one law.

Since being sworn into the U.S. Senate in 2013, I've met with and listened to veterans across the state. Among the common challenges they mention include the need for better communication and collaboration with the VA, timely access to health care throughout all the islands, and improving the transition to civilian life. These three critical issues have guided my priorities for Hawaii's veterans.

In addition to supporting legislation that benefits our veterans, I have created a monthly veterans' newsletter and worked with the Honolulu Regional VA Benefits Office and VA Pacific Islands Health Care System to increase VA benefits workshops across the state.

In observance of this Veterans Day on Tuesday, we need to restore the trust of our veterans through actions and our sustained commitment to ensure that positive changes at the VA occur. These are the best ways to thank those who have served.