Martha Roby: Strides taken at VA, but long road remains

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This past week marked one year since the director of the Central Alabama Veterans Healthcare System (CAVHCS) was removed from his post when a pattern of gross mismanagement and systemic malfeasance was exposed. Weeks later he would become the first VA official in the country fired under our new VA accountability law.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson visited CAVHCS at my request for an update on progress made over the past year to improve what have been some of the worst VA medical centers in the country. I wanted him to see that, while some strides have been made to fix this broken system, major issues still remain. We had a productive meeting, and I appreciate how responsive Mr. Gibson and Southeast Regional Director Tom Smith have been to my concerns.

One of the biggest contributors to the long wait times at CAVHCS has been the serious shortage of medical staff. There wasn’t a funding issue, but rather a management and human resources breakdown. Recently, steps have been taken to hire more doctors, nurses and medical support staff, which is certainly promising. But, as I told Mr. Gibson, we need that to start translating into better access to care.

The fact is we still have more than 4,000 veteran patients who have waited longer than 90 days without an appointment. That’s unacceptable, and I’m going to keep pushing VA leaders to improve until we make this right.

One issue we discussed at length was repairing CAVHCS’ relationships with local hospitals and other health providers. Why is that important? Well, the vast majority of that 4,000 number I mentioned comes from those who have been referred to outside physicians but are awaiting appointments.

I believe the future of veterans health care will rely less on actual VA facilities and more on partnerships with outside medical providers for services. We have amazing doctors, hospitals and other providers in Alabama that are eager to play a larger role in caring for vets, and the money is there to do it.

The problem is CAVHCS has had trouble in the past keeping up with payments on contracts, so many local providers are naturally hesitant. Mr. Gibson and Mr. Smith expressed great interest in working with me to bridge that gap and build a network within Alabama’s medical community that will improve access and enhance care for veterans.

Above all, we badly need a permanent director at the Central Alabama VA who is both empowered and driven to make the necessary changes. After a year, it looks like we are close to having that person. I will keep you updated on these developments as we move forward.

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She is currently serving her third term.

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