Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans, the second most of any state in the nation. We are a welcoming home to those who wore the uniform, a place where veterans can live healthy, prosperous lives.
It should come as no surprise that over the last few years, Florida’s lawmakers have been at the forefront of reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs. Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the VA MISSION Act that transformed veterans’ health care to give thousands of veterans’ access to medical care in their own communities.
Senators and representatives alike, including Sen. Rubio and Reps. Gus Bilirakis, John Rutherford, and Greg Stuebe have introduced and sponsored legislation that would further reform and streamline the VA to be more veteran-centric.
After all, that is the point of the VA in the first place: to ensure care for those who wore the uniform.
If you need proof that the VA needs reform, look no further than a recent survey done of the military community in the Jacksonville area.
This survey found large percentages of veterans identified needing medical services, resources for mental health and PTSD, and disability claims support. When a federal health care system exists to provide these very resources, and veterans are still reporting they need help, something must be done.
The simple answer is that veterans should have greater choice in where they seek their health care. There are clear actions the incoming Congress can take in its first days to get the ball rolling.
The VA MISSION Act was a giant step forward in giving millions of veterans’ health care options outside the VA bureaucracy. But the VA ignored its own regulations, manipulating wait time measurements used as criteria for community care eligibility. This left veterans unsure of their rights and the process for accessing non-VA care. Further legislation is needed to empower veterans with choice and hold the VA accountable.
New legislation will need to be introduced in the new Congress, but I am encouraged by what I’ve seen in the last few years and see those bills as a starting point for 2023.
The Guaranteeing Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served (GHAPS) Act, Veterans Health Care Freedom Act, and Veterans True Choice Act, the last of which was introduced by Florida’s own Rep. Steube, were chock full of meaningful reforms the new Congress should take note of. Their ideas included codifying the access standards for community care, offering TRICARE access for those with service-connected injuries, and, most importantly, expanding choice in care to all veterans who use the VA, regardless of existing VA drive or wait times.
All veterans should have the choice to use their benefits at the provider that best meets their needs, whether their wait times at the VA are for three days or 30 days.
The bottom line of these reforms is simple: veterans, not the VA bureaucracy, should be the priority in veterans’ health care policy, and veterans should be empowered with choices to make the health care decisions that are right for them.
I have high expectations for Florida’s lawmakers as they start off the 118th Congress, both the returning members of Congress and those who are swearing in for their first term. What better way to set the tone for 2023 than to champion legislation that truly puts veterans in control of their health care.
Jimmie T. Smith is a coalition director with Concerned Veterans for America in Florida and a veteran of the United States Army.