Finally, all three of our Congressional District representatives have managed to sign on to legislation that is good for a substantial group of Americans. The brand-new law that will benefit veterans feels like a gift horse. Do we dare look into its mouth? It isn't often Congressman Tom Reed and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer agree on anything.
This long-overdue bill to fund improvements to the Veterans Administration health care system was born of a rare bipartisan concord that expresses an understanding of the injustices faced by so many veterans. The VA's bureaucratic flaws are old news to veterans. Waiting at length for medical care and service-connected disability claims is an ironic reality for men and women who were rushed efficiently and vigorously into service.
Treatment for the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds of veterans has for too long been scatter shot and filled with scandal and inefficiency - probably because of a lack of public awareness and philosophical underpinning. The best thing about the new legislation is its focus on a system that can tolerate personnel shortages while handing out bonuses to VA executives who doctor treatment records to create the illusion of efficiency. Fortunately, these "book cooking" executives are now under legal and public scrutiny.
The $16 billion law addresses these flaws by allocating $5 billion for hiring and by giving the VA secretary greater flexibility to fire miscreant executives.
The best news for Chautauqua County veterans is the provision allowing for non-VA care for those living more than 40 miles from a VA facility. Ideally, veterans who need services not available at the local VA clinic - physical therapy, for instance - will be able to get care outside the VA, which will help those who have trouble getting to Buffalo; the law allocates $10 billion for that and continued funding for veterans with traumatic brain injuries. The law also ensures more rigorous training for personnel who serve veterans coping with military sexual trauma while it expands treatment for this affliction known to too many area veterans of both sexes.
It's hard to argue with these provisions. But this initiative comes with a few criticisms and caveats. One critic, Paul Rieckhoff of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), faults the law for downplaying oversight of the VA that would strengthen pensions, enhance dental care and educational opportunities, and chip away at the backlog of disability claims. American Veterans, known widely as AMVETS, echoes this concern in its claim that the law increases funding for the VA without demanding more accountability from it.
Cost is the major point of conflict. Yes, this is a pricey law. But Bernie Sanders is right in calling it "the cost of war." Abraham Lincoln might have had that same idea in mind when he ended his Second Inaugural speech with his prescription to "bind up the nation's wounds" in part by a national effort to "care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." 150 years later, shouldn't we have a ready, tangible response to the famous call to "Support the Troops" when they come home hurt and suffering and no longer "useful"? A decent society will find the means.
Funding will likely remain a problem. The Senate bill that died in February was a casualty of the debate over tax cuts at the top versus funding for veterans, and one reason the newer bill passed was a compromise to use part of the existing VA budget to fund it. The next round of funding will likely include this same fiscal line in the sand, with the bipartisan divide over who will pay and how much being yet again the hill to die on.
In the meantime, we could all care in some way for a veteran. Make a phone call. Offer a ride, or a free lunch. Send a private message on Facebook. Say thanks, just because. There are so many immediate and personal ways to care for those who have "borne the battle."
And when the next Congress brings that gift horse around again, we should indeed look in its mouth. We must encourage our legislators to feed it as well. If the funding dilemma forces a choice between tax cuts at the top or health care and benefits for veterans, there is only one choice: to support the troops.
Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org