Over the past few days, key developments have taken place in Washington, DC, indicating that an urgently needed new chapter for the Veterans Affairs Administration is set to commence. After months of dealmaking, Senator Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont) and Congressman Jeff Miller (R-Florida) have come to a rare bipartisan agreement on legislation designed to overhaul the troubled agency. President Obama’s nominee to serve as the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald has pledged to transform the agency, was approved in committee and appears to be headed for bipartisan confirmation. It’s about time. Revelations earlier this year that forty veterans lost their lives on the agency’s watch, backlogged and forgotten in a dysfunctional system, have shaken the nation and stained the government’s record.
Today, we unite to respectfully offer the following steps as a roadmap towards recovery, rehabilitation and renewal.
First, we urge the incoming Secretary to meet with the families of the veterans who lost their lives and own up to the government failures that led to this tragedy. This will put our military families, veterans and the country on a much-needed path towards healing.
Second, we stand with the main veterans organisations in the United States in pushing for a broad Veterans’ Bill of Rights. This provision is long overdue and must contain the following components:
The right to immediate healthcare. Let us be clear: not one more veteran should wait in line to be seen by a doctor or receive care. Congress must immediately create and fund a voucher system so that if capacity does not exist at a local system hospital, veterans can receive VA system insured quality care at another hospital. The waitlist must go, and recent key signs indicate that the White House agrees.
Reform the system to meet clearly defined generational needs. The band of brothers who gathered to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day have different needs than those suffering from post-Vietnam injuries. The young men and women returning from active service in Iraq and Afghanistan have their own problems, including an epidemic of post-traumatic stress. One size doesn’t fit all, and the system needs to be redesigned to accommodate our brave service members’ physical and emotional needs spanning 80 years.
Unite the movement. We recommend that the Administration convene the nation’s largest veterans groups and listen thoughtfully to the experts: what are the gaps in the system, and how can we work as a coalition in partnership to close them? Leadership must maintain close collaboration with a range of advocates – and not just in times of crisis. This will raise standards, trust and buy-in, and continue a philosophy of shared sacrifice that is bred into the culture of our military.
Partner with the other sectors. We hope that the incoming Secretary will adapt some of the most effectivepractices of the private sector and of fellow nonprofits, especially those dedicated to social services and medical research. Public-private partnerships offer some of the best solutions working today in veterans’ healthcare.
Don’t just administrate: advocate. The Secretary of Veterans Affairs should not remain behind a curtain or shrouded in bureaucracy. Come out from behind the desk. Be visible. We can’t just reengage when there is a disaster, only to move on when the news cameras turn away.
Most importantly, we are heartened that President Obama has moved to appoint an individual who has military experience but also, crucially, understands the culture of conglomerates. The Department of Veterans Affairs is actually three different business lines. This includes a system of over 900 hospitals and clinics — the nation’s largest — and a massive financial, pension and loan management system. With over 300,000 employees, if the Department of Veteran’ Affairs were private it would be at the top of the Fortune 100. We believe that Robert McDonald’s combination of military and business experience will serve the agency and those Americans in its charge well.
We join all Americans in acknowledging that this problem can’t be solved overnight, by one appointment or the stroke of any one President’s pen. Ensuring that we don’t wind up here again requires adhering to apledge that transcends time, party and Administration. This promise must begin today and endure indefinitely. Passing Senator Sanders and Congressman Miller’s legislation and confirming Robert McDonald’s before this session ends is a key first step.
General Henry H. Shelton, USA ret., the first member of the Special Forces to become our nation’s highest ranking military official serving as the 14th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of the 82nd Airborne.
Bill White, CEO of Constellations Group served as President of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum and is a lifelong advocate forhealthcare, social services and economic development for our nation’s Veterans, Servicemembers and their families.
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