Avery's grandfather fought in the Vietnam War, and even though he hasn't served in the army for several decades, his injuries from the war still bother him at times. When that happens, he usually goes to a Veterans Affairs medical center, which is part of a health care system designed specifically for veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs serves millions of people who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who were not discharged or released from duty dishonorably. While providing healthcare is one of the primary responsibilities of the Department, it is far from the only one.
Department of Veterans Affairs
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is a federal executive department and a unit of the executive branch. The President appoints its Secretary, who also serves in the Cabinet to advise the President. Established in its current form in 1989, the Department provides benefits and services to veterans through four distinct missions. It provides health care, eases the transition into civilian life, provides dignified burials, and prepares for national emergencies and disasters by ensuring veterans will have access to continued service.
The roots of the VA go back to 1776, when the Continental Congress provided pensions to any disabled soldiers, hoping to encourage enlistment in the Revolutionary War. However, it wasn’t until 1811 that the federal government authorized the first medical facility for veterans. Before this, individual states and communities had been conducting their own hospital and medical care for veterans. In 1834, the facility opened. After the American Civil War, many states established veterans’ homes to provide medical service.
On August 1, 1921, Congress combined all of the World War I veterans programs, creating the Veterans Bureau. On July 21, 1930, a second consolidation took place when President Herbert Hoover signed an executive order that elevated the Veterans Bureau to a federal administration. The GI Bill of 1944 then increased the budget of the Veterans Administration, placing it behind the War and Navy Departments in terms of funding and personnel priorities. Finally, in 1989, President Reagan elevated the VA once more, now to the federal executive level, where its Secretary would now serve on the Cabinet. The Veterans Administration was renamed the Department of Veterans Affairs but continued to be known as the VA.
The VA has three administrations: The National Cemetery Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration, and the Veterans Health Administration. Because of its many responsibilities and the number of veterans, the VA also has twenty-three staff offices, overseeing specific areas. For instance, the Center for Women Veterans assists the roughly two million living women veterans. This office promotes recognition of women veterans’ military service and contributions and coordinates programs that address women’s health issues.
People often criticize the VA for the long wait time between when a veteran requests an appointment and when they can see a doctor. New patients should be able to see a doctor within fourteen days of the VA accepting their paperwork, and existing patients should be able to see a doctor within fourteen to thirty days of requesting an appointment.
However, in 2014, a retired VA doctor informed the VA’s inspector general that a medical facility in Phoenix, Arizona, was falsifying records to make it seem like the wait times were meeting standards. In reality, administrators kept 1,700 veterans on a secret waiting list, and the actual average wait time for an initial primary care appointment was 115 days. An investigation then found that the issue of delays and falsifying records was happening in other centers around the country. Several veterans died while on the waiting list, though the inspector general said there was no definitive link between their waits and their deaths. While the Secretary of the VA then resigned and protections for whistleblowers and improving accountability were put in place, there are still issues within the VA.
Adequate care and treatment for veterans is a common cause for many people, whatever their political beliefs. However, not everyone agrees on how to solve the long wait times and difficulties seeing a doctor. One proposed solution is to privatize some of the health care responsibilities of the VA by allowing veterans to see their own physicians, with the VA covering the cost. Proponents of this idea say that it would enable veterans to choose where to seek care without worrying about the financial burden. It could also allow them to seek treatment without having to travel hundreds of miles to a VA medical facility. Critics say that such a move would redirect billions of dollars away from the VA and could easily cause some of its hospitals to close, especially as many are already struggling financially. The move could put significant strain on the VA’s facilities, and some warn it could cause the entire system to collapse.
Other common issues faced by veterans, outside of physical medical care, include homelessness and mental health issues. While progress has been made, there is still a long way to go. So long as there is a U.S. military, there will always be veterans who need medical support and other forms of assistance. The type and quality of that assistance, however, is continually evolving. You can influence the decisions made concerning the VA by researching laws and policies, contacting your representatives, and staying informed about the actions of the VA.