Progress for veterans, but much more to do

Students at a school in Niceville, Fla., welcomed veterans last week in advance of Veterans Day.
Students at a school in Niceville, Fla., welcomed veterans last week in advance of Veterans Day. Northwest Florida Daily News

This Veterans Day in particular is a good time to take stock of how our nation cares for people who served. The report card is decidedly mixed, particularly for the youngest generation who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq.

There’s an intense focus on the Department of Veterans Affairs after the horrendous scandal over secret appointment lists, falsified records and veterans literally dying while waiting for care. New VA Secretary Robert McDonald has President Barack Obama’s ear; the day after the election, Obama made time to discuss efforts to improve medical care, eliminate the disability claims backlog and end homelessness.

Leading up to Veterans Day, the VA says it has reduced new patient wait times from 51 days in May to 42 days as of Oct. 31, though that’s still higher than the goal of 30 days. The agency says it has cut the backlog of disability claims by 60 percent since its peak in March 2013. Last week, about 300,000 veterans, those who live at least 40 miles from the nearest VA hospital or clinic, started receiving “choice cards” that let them see local doctors at VA expense.

Access to outside care was part of an important law – passed by Congress in response to the scandal and signed by Obama in August – that authorizes $16 billion in emergency spending for the VA.

Another high-profile bill is before this lame-duck Congress. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is pushing legislation to help prevent the estimated 22 suicides a day by vets. H.R. 5059, which is to be heard in committee on Friday, would require a review of all mental health and suicide prevention programs at the VA and Department of Defense, start a prescription drug take-back program at VA medical centers and create a test program to recruit more psychiatrists by paying off student loans.

Despite the progress the VA claims, it has much more work to do – not only to fix existing problems, but also prepare for the future. It isn’t all up to the department, however. State and local agencies, businesses and nonprofits all have to renew their commitment to veterans.

For instance, while unemployment among veterans is generally going down as the economy improves, there are still far too many jobless vets, especially younger ones. In figures released last week, the unemployment rate for Iraq and Afghanistan vets was 7.2 percent in October, down from 10 percent a year earlier. The jobless rate for younger female vets, however, had barely budged, to 11.2 percent.

Also, the VA, which says it has reduced the number of homeless veterans by one-third since 2010, has the ambitious goal to end homelessness by the end of next year. Still, according to the best available numbers, about 50,000 veterans are homeless on any given night; they tend to be younger and disproportionately black or Latino.

The most recent count in Sacramento found about 300 homeless veterans. Sacramento Steps Forward, the nonprofit that coordinates local efforts and funding, just announced that it has been selected to join a national campaign to end veteran homelessness and end all chronic homelessness by the end of 2016.

Making inroads on all these needs can’t come soon enough. There will be a surge of new vets as U.S. forces withdraw from our long war in Afghanistan and as the military downsizes. The VA must also adapt to substantial increases in the proportion of female and minority vets.

Getting this right is important, not only for the nation’s 22 million veterans (including 1.8 million in California, the most of any state) and their families, but for taxpayers.

About 9 million vets are enrolled in VA health care, nearly 4 million are receiving disability payments and more than 1 million are using education benefits. Those numbers are rising.

The VA is spending about $44 billion a year just on health care; the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill passed this year will add $35 billion to the cost in the next decade and probably much more.

Obviously, services have to be provided as efficiently as possible. The VA has to follow through on efforts to make its bureaucracy as lean as possible.

To do right by our veterans, a day of speeches and parades isn’t enough. We can’t break the bank, but we must give all the help they deserve.