Editor's Note: Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, is the Ranking Democrat of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author.
I am a pragmatist and optimist. I worked in a paper mill for over 29 years before coming to Congress, and I was inspired to first run for office at the state level because of pollution in the Penobscot River near my home where I grew up – and caused by the very mill I worked at. I learned that the best way to affect change is by coming together to solve problems, and putting the greater good above partisan agendas. And I learned that strength and opportunity can come from hard times.
And we are seeing some hard times at VA right now. For the past few months, we have heard of systemic failings across the Department - one after another, with one common factor: veterans being let down by the system that was meant to pull them up.
But we now have the opportunity to turn the dysfunction into real reform - reform that will make the Department more customer service-oriented, with a focus on managing and meeting veteran expectations in a manner which they’ve more than earned through their service.
I was proud to work with my colleagues Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and other members of the conference committee as we finalized the veterans’ reform legislation. At the end of the day, we put aside our partisan differences and put the needs of our veterans first. That’s how you get things done.
But getting a bill signed into law is only the first step. Now, the real work begins.
I met with VA Secretary Bob McDonald just a few weeks ago, prior to his confirmation, and I am confident he’s the right leader for the Department. His military and business background uniquely suits him for the work ahead. We hear from veterans first-hand that the VA has a good product. Veterans like VA healthcare, once they get in the system. They like their pensions, compensation checks and other benefits, once they get qualified. But clearly the processes for developing and delivering these services are very broken.
As we look at the reforms ahead, we must focus first and foremost on changing the corrosive culture within the Department. There needs to be a focus on practices that enhance a veteran’s feeling that the VA cares about his or her individual well-being, and cares about providing quality and timely benefits and services.
We also need to look at what practices are working best. For example, I was proud to bring Project ARCH (Access Received Closer to Home) to Maine several years ago and extend the program through this most recent legislation. ARCH allows veterans who live in rural areas to receive care much closer to home. Without ARCH, many veterans in Maine would face a nearly 600 mile round-trip trek to the nearest VA facility. It’s a great example of what is working for our veterans.
Changing the culture within VA also means increasing accountability. VA senior leaders must be held accountable for negative outcomes or ill-intentioned decisions. I’m pleased that the bill we passed includes important steps to facilitate this increased accountability. The new law specifically covers categories of employees we know were involved with wrongdoings in Phoenix and other locations.
VA needs to understand that veterans expect and deserve continuity of care and services, not disjointed branches that don’t communicate well. The stovepipes of healthcare, benefits, and memorial services need to be taken down and the Department needs to transform into a more integrated system that works together to support veterans when, where, and how they need it. The ‘back room’ functions of public affairs, financial management, technology development, and human resources need to be overhauled.
Despite all of the disturbing stories that have come to light through this crisis, I am confident we can use the bipartisan momentum of this moment to create a stronger, more veteran-focused VA.
I’m committed to working with Secretary McDonald on long-term reforms within the Department. There is the desire on both sides of the aisle in Congress – ranging from Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and myself, to Rep. Jeff Miller and all of those on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee – to get this right for our veterans, and to commit to long-term, meaningful reform. We made good progress in passing this bill, but the real work at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is just beginning.