Daily Press Editorial: Veterans health centers
Jul 17 2019
This article was originally published in the Daily Press on 07/17/2019
U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner is, again, raising Cain over complications that have slowed construction of new veterans health centers in Virginia.
Two years have passed since Congress agreed to fund 28 veteran health facilities nationwide to address a deep backlog of patient wait times.
Two facilities planned for veteran-rich Virginia, however, are some of the last on the list.
It’s deeply unfair that Hampton Roads — a region that has given so much to the military — has been placed in the back of the line when it comes time for service members to receive care.
Sen. Warner, D-Va., is demanding an expedited timeline for a facility planned for South Hampton Roads and another in Fredericksburg.
The former facility will help ease the workload at the Hampton VA Medical Center, which had some of the longest wait times in the country in 2014.
Once built, the South Hampton Roads center would include 155,000 square feet and offer primary and specialty care, plus day surgery and other services.
Hampton VA staff have worked hard to change the way the facility approaches calls for services. Administrators are doing more to hire and retain health care staff while making operational adjustments that will, hopefully, reduce the center’s backlog.
Yet, construction on the Southside center is being slowed by a tangled web of bureaucracy.
The delay is due, in part, because of differences between Veterans Affairs, the U.S. General Services Administration and Congress concerning how the projects should be funded.
The VA considers these projects as long-term leases, even if the ultimate goal is building new facilities. The Congressional Budget Office has said Congress should set aside larger sums of money for the projects upfront, rather than paying smaller amounts year by year.
Sen. Warner and other lawmakers have tried negotiating a compromise that sets aside less money than recommended by the CBO in order to move the projects forward.
A VA Office of Inspector General report released July 2 called for reforms in how the VA handles these projects.
The report reviewed 24 VA projects authorized in 2014. So far, only two facilities are open, and it will take nearly two more years for the rest of the projects to come online.
Neither the Hampton nor the Fredericksburg centers were included in the July 2 report because those were authorized in 2017, not 2014. However, recommendations about how to expedite the process in the report are considered applicable to the Virginia projects.
And every person who cares about the military — especially the service members who are based in Hampton Roads — must be dissatisfied with how this process is unfolding. As lawmakers and administrators grapple in Washington, veterans in need of significant care are waiting without help.
In December 2014, the Hampton VA had the longest wait time in the nation for primary care patients.
The backlogs in Hampton Roads do not appear to be abating anytime soon, especially considering the veteran population is anticipated to grow nearly 22 percent from 2017 to 2027.
The current state of affairs at the VA is clearly not working properly.
Even veterans who appeal decisions involving disability benefits are facing a growing backlog that could exceed 1 million people within a decade. Without clear answers to the problem, veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years to have their appeals resolved.
Walk around our region and doesn’t take too long to realize the military’s outsized presence here.
Nearly 18 percent of Hampton Roads is comprised of veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure far outpaces any other region in Virginia and it is one of the densest populations of veterans anywhere in the country.
We must become a priority.
Sen. Warner has sent a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie as well as the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration Emily W. Murphy, demanding the agencies present a plan to speed up the completion of these Virginia facilities.
Consider contacting the VA at www.va.gov or GSA www.gsa.gov to let them know how important the service members and veterans are to Hampton Roads.
Their well-being is a standard of how we treat this entire community. And the current state of affairs will not be accepted.