As someone who represents a district with a high concentration of veterans, an important part of my job in Congress is making sure national Department of Veterans Affairs leaders pay attention to Alabama and remain focused on improving the long-troubled Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System.
We certainly got their attention last year. Working with courageous whistleblowers and the press, we were able to expose major instances of misconduct, negligence and cover-up that led to the director of the Central Alabama VA being the first manager terminated for cause under the new VA reform law.
That was just over a year ago, and since then, our efforts to work with VA leaders to overhaul the system and improve access to care have been frustrating to say the least. Out of this frustration came an important lesson: we cannot depend on a broken bureaucracy to fix itself. I believe one major problem is that for a year we had been asking for VA leaders to intervene at this troubled system, rather than requiring them to. I believe it’s time to change that, which is why I filed legislation that would compel top VA officials to intervene and take over failing VA medical centers.
It’s called the Failing VA Medical Center Recovery Act, and it offers the VA new tools to turn around the worst of our health care centers. Further, it puts responsibility for doing so squarely on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
I recently presented my VA “takeover” bill before a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, where I discussed the legislation with fellow lawmakers, representatives from the VA and other interested groups. Not surprisingly, some entrenched in the system weren’t welcoming to a bill that disrupts the status quo. Still, I appreciate their willingness to engage, and I remain hopeful that they will embrace this legislation as a powerful new tool for improving veterans’ health care services.
I am willing to work with anyone who truly wants to improve the VA through this proposal or others. But, let me tell you what I’m not willing to do: I’m not willing to let my bill become a victim of the VA’s culture of complacency. Minor tweaks here and there aren’t going to cut it. We need wholesale change, and the veterans I represent know it.
I am cautiously optimistic about the future prospects for the Central Alabama VA. The numbers have been improving in recent months and a new, permanent director will soon be selected to bring needed stability. I’m working to bridge the gap between the VA and the local medical community to make sure we have a strong network of local providers where veterans can access care quickly and without driving long distances. I will keep you updated on this progress as we go.
Martha Roby represents Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. She is currently serving her third term.