Florida is home to hundreds of thousands of veterans, the second most of any state in the nation. We are a welcoming home for those who wore the uniform, a place for veterans to live healthy and prosperous lives.
It should come as no surprise that Florida lawmakers have been at the forefront of reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs in recent years. Sen. Marco Rubio introduced the VA MISSION Act, which reshaped veteran health care to allow thousands of veterans access to medical care in their own communities.
Senators and Representatives alike, including Sen. Rubio and Reps. Gus Bilirakis, John Rutherfordand Greg Stube introduced and sponsored legislation that would further reform and streamline the VA to be more veteran-centric.
Because that’s what the VA is primarily concerned with: caring for the wearers of the uniform.
If you need proof that the VA needs reforming, look no further than a current survey done by the military community in the Jacksonville area.
This survey found that large percentages of veterans are in need of medical services, mental health and PTSD resources, and assistance with disability claims. If there is a federal health care system that provides those very resources, and veterans are still reporting that they need help, something needs to be done.
The simple answer is that veterans should have more choice in where to get their healthcare. There are clear actions the new Congress can take in its early days to get the ball rolling.
The VA MISSION Act was a giant step forward in providing millions of veterans with healthcare options outside of the VA bureaucracy. But the VA ignored its own regulations and manipulated wait time measurements used as criteria for eligibility for community care. This left veterans unsure of their rights and the process for accessing non-VA care. More legislation is needed to give veterans choice and hold the VA accountable.
New legislation needs to be introduced in the new Congress, but I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen over the past few years and see these bills as a starting point for 2023.
The Garanting Healthcare Access to Personnel Who Served (GHAPS) Act, the Veterans Health Care Freedom Act, and the Veterans True Choice Act, the last of which was introduced by Florida’s own Rep. Steube, were chock-full of meaningful reforms that the new Congress took note of should take from. Their ideas included codifying access standards for community care, offering TRICARE access to those with service-related injuries, and most importantly, expanding the choice of care for all veterans using VA, regardless of existing VA trips or wait times .
All veterans should have the choice to use their benefits with the provider that best suits their needs, whether their wait times with the VA are 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 policies, and veterans should be given the opportunity to make the health care decisions that are right for them.
I have high expectations of Florida lawmakers as they begin the 118th Congress, both returning members of Congress and those being sworn in for their first term. What better way to set the tone for 2023 than by lobbying for legislation that truly puts veterans in control of their healthcare?
Jimmie T Smith is the Coalition Director at Concerned Veterans for America in Florida and a US Army veteran.
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