Viewpoints: Health care for veterans can’t become a back-burner issue again

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been in the news a lot lately, and not much of it has been positive.

Nationally, the VA has been facing crisis after crisis highlighted by the media and met by an outraged nation. Lack of access to care, negligence, unacceptable wait times and substandard care are plaguing VA health care facilities nationwide. Congress took the opportunity to capitalize on “helping veterans,” pushing through overly simplistic legislation that doesn’t really address the problem.

For example, there is much talk about giving veterans vouchers so they can receive care from private doctors if they are unable to get a timely appointment, or live too far from a VA facility. It’s a great idea. And this policy already exists. VA medical centers and clinics have the ability, and the budget, to send veterans to a civilian care provider if they are unable to provide quality, timely care.

This is just one example. And I am just one veteran, one client at one VA health care facility, Mather VA Medical Center. I certainly can’t take on the entire VA health care system, nor would I want to. But what I can do is take action in my own community. I can advocate for myself and my fellow veterans here in Northern California.

I believe we have a unique and wonderful opportunity here at the Northern California Veterans Health Care System. Good things are happening – most importantly, the system has recently come under new leadership with Director David Stockwell. He joined the team late last year but has shown great promise, from my perspective.

In June, he held a small but meaningful town hall in which a few local veterans were able to voice their concerns about the care they had been receiving. He didn’t gloss over the issues or make excuses. He seemed ready to take on the problems veterans were facing, ready to make changes, ready to serve veterans. He promised future town halls, with a larger audience of local veterans, and he promised change.

My purpose here is to keep the momentum going. I imagine Stockwell will face a number of obstacles, and there will be many people with conflicting agendas who will have his ear. There will be other issues that pop up in the news. My fear is that, despite Stockwell’s good intentions, the level of care veterans are receiving in Northern California will become a back-burner issue once again.

As a veteran who receives care, I certainly have an interest. As members of our community, however, we all have an obligation to protect those who served as they once protected us. Many veterans now suffer from debilitating injures, including those unseen, that prevent them from advocating for themselves. It is our duty to advocate for them.

We should be positive forces for change – to not only keep the spotlight on our facility, but to assist Stockwell in every possible way. That means we have to stop complaining, and start coming up with solutions. We’ve got to think outside the box, we’ve got to speak up, we’ve got to become the instruments of the change that we desire – and that we deserve.