Car­ing for vets should be na­tional duty

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY CHRISTO­PHER DALE

In ad­vance of this year’s Vet­er­ans Day, on Nov. 11, the le­gions of men and women who have served in our na­tion’s mil­i­tary re­ceived some wel­com­ing news: Congress fi­nally agreed to fund the VA Mis­sion Act, which since its June pas­sage had been mired in bud­getary dis­putes.

An­nounced on Sept. 11 — an ap­pro­pri­ate date — the ar­range­ment sets aside more than $200 bil­lion to im­prove the health care ser­vices pro­vided by the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs.

Tales of de­lays and de­fi­cien­cies, in­clud­ing long waits and poor ac­cess to proper care, have plagued the VA since in­jured vets started re­turn­ing from Afghanistan and Iraq fol­low­ing 9/11. Last fall — 16 years after the War on Ter­ror be­gan — the VA was still flooded with se­ri­ous com­plaints about pa­tient care; ear­lier this year, con­cerns about doc­tor short­ages made head­lines.

It’s these is­sues that the VA Mis­sion Act seeks to ad­dress. The law makes it eas­ier for vet­er­ans to ac­cess cov­ered care through non-VA ser­vice providers, who may be more con­ve­nient in terms of ex­pe­di­ence, dis­tance or qual­ity of care.

The law’s pri­mary prin­ci­ple is sim­ple: Those in­jured while serv­ing in the mil­i­tary should not need to jump through hoops for qual­ity med­i­cal care.

The law also pro­vides in­cen­tives for re­cruit­ing new doc­tors to the VA, in­clud­ing an at­trac­tive ed­u­ca­tion debt-re­lief ini­tia­tive and spe­cial­ized train­ing in af­flic­tions most likely to im­pact vet­er­ans, such as PTSD and painkiller ad­dic­tion.

It’s a ter­rific start, but the law has short­com­ings. For starters, de­spite set­tling the sum­mer-long fi­nan­cial squab­ble, Congress failed to de­liver a long-term fund­ing so­lu­tion for the law’s his­tor­i­cally high (though com­pletely nec­es­sary) rev­enue re­quire­ments.

But the law’s great­est dis­ap­point­ment is its nar­rowly de­fined view of car­ing for our in­jured vet­er­ans.

Tens of thou­sands of men and women have re­turned from Iraq and Afghanistan with per­ma­nent phys­i­cal hand­i­caps and deep emo­tional scars — wounds they will be cop­ing with for the rest of their lives. Many need as­sis­tance out­side the doc­tor’s of­fice, in­clud­ing find­ing suit­able em­ploy­ment in an econ­omy that, though hum­ming for many, is far from ideal for in­di­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties, whose un­em­ploy­ment rate is more than dou­ble the na­tional av­er­age.

Truly com­pre­hen­sive care would not only fix the VA but ex­pand it to em­power in­jured vet­er­ans with eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties, peer-to-peer en­gage­ment, and group-cen­tric men­tal health pro­grams that uti­lize in­jured vet­er­ans’ great­est tool for over­com­ing bat­tle-born trauma: each other.

Christo­pher Dale of Lit­tle Falls, New Jer­sey, writes on so­ci­ety, pol­i­tics and so­bri­ety-based is­sues. This col­umn was writ­ten for the Pro­gres­sive Me­dia Project, which is run by The Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine, and dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune News Ser­vice.

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