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House GOP conference chair: Wait time is up for VA fix

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

The Outrage Machine is regular opinion column by voices from the left and right on Washington.

Imagine a veterans’ hospital with no waiting list to see a doctor.

One where veterans can book their appointments online 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Where the red carpet is rolled out for our heroes to receive world-class care for their world-class service the very next day — before it’s too late.

And where the men and women who accepted the call of duty can choose to continue seeing the doctor they’ve seen their entire lives.

This is what a common sense, 21st century veterans’ health care system should look like. After all, we’re talking about the men and women who lay their lives on the line and sacrifice so that we may live free.

To think they could be trapped in a broken system simply because of their service, and not have the same access to quality services available to private citizens, is outrageous.

Unbelievably, as we approach two years since the scandal broke out at the VA with secret wait lists, patients dying waiting for appointments, and an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness, we’re finding that our veterans still aren’t even coming close to that vision for 21st century care.

In fact, according to recent reports, the situation is even worse.

An audit released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the VA still hasn’t fixed the wait times that plagued the system two years ago; schedulers at half the reviewed centers had falsified wait times, and scheduling was done improperly a quarter of the time. An earlier report revealed that as of January, more than 30,000 veterans were waiting longer than one month for health care than they were the year before.

[Veterans can still face long waits for care. If they get it at all]

This doesn’t mean a 21st century VA isn’t possible, but it will require a comprehensive overhaul of the agency we know today, starting with the way health centers schedule appointments, and continuing until the culture and focus of the agency’s bureaucrats places veterans before themselves.

The VA is centered on the status quo and the problems at the agency are deeply rooted at every level of this obsolete government model built for the previous century. And it’s failing our veterans.

For example, despite assertions from the agency that several dozen employees lost or would lose their jobs over the manipulated wait times, in reality, only a handful have been fired — not even enough to qualify as a slap on the wrist.

Veterans died while on VA waiting lists, and it is unconscionable that there has been little effort on the part of the agency to reform its own culture, rectify this situation, or hold those responsible accountable.

Delivering timely, quality care for these brave men and women has to be more than just lip service—it has to be a priority.

This means taking seriously the long wait times, insufficient care, and unresponsive management.

It is estimated that 18 percent of VA appointments are wasted due to last-minute cancellations and no-shows. In these instances, VA personnel failed to refill the cancelled appointments.

In June of last year, an internal audit found more than 120,000 veterans waited at least 90 days for appointments for medical care, or they didn’t receive appointments at all.

These slots could be filled by the countless other veterans stuck on the wait-list using real-time updates available through existing technology.

The VA recently told Congress that it is putting on hold its overhaul of its scheduling system that was supposed to fix the problem, meaning the agency is still relying on archaic technology systems and phone calls to get the job done.

We can do better.

I believe we should open up the scheduling process to the same technologies being used in doctors’ offices by private citizens across the country, which is why I’ve introduced legislation with Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) that incorporates self-scheduling so veterans can schedule and confirm medical appointments online and immediately.

But the scheduling system is not enough. Across the board, whether it’s how appointments are scheduled, or the quality of health services provided, our veterans should have access to the same technology and services as private patients across the country.

If we don’t clean house at the VA and overhaul its culture, we’re just biding time until another — potentially worse– scandal surfaces.

Over the coming months, we will focus on legislation that demonstrates to the VA how innovative ideas already being used in the private sector can also work for them to cut back on red tape, stay within budget, and, most importantly, get our veterans the care they earned and need.

The time has run out for the VA to address its issues on its own.

If this administration cannot follow through on the fundamental duty and solemn obligation to serve our veterans with the VA as-is, then it’s time to try something different.

No more waiting. No more sitting by the phone hoping that someone follows up.

Self-scheduling is only one example of the endless possibilities for a 21st century VA — one that treats our veterans with dignity and respect, and ensures our heroes’ sacrifices don’t continue after their tours end.

It just takes the imagination and willpower to make it happen.

A founder of the Congressional Military Family Caucus, Cathy McMorris Rodgers has represented Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington’s 5th Congressional District since 2005. McMorris Rodgers is chair of the House Republican Conference.