How to Create a VA That Works for Veterans

Rep. Mark Takano of California's 41st congressional district, right, talks to 163d Attack Wing Vice Commander Col. Keith Ward, second from right, while touring the wing's new Hap Arnold Center Feb. 23, 2017 at March Air Reserve Base, California. (Air National Guard photo/Crystal Housman)
Rep. Mark Takano of California's 41st congressional district, right, talks to 163d Attack Wing Vice Commander Col. Keith Ward, second from right, while touring the wing's new Hap Arnold Center Feb. 23, 2017 at March Air Reserve Base, California. (Air National Guard photo/Crystal Housman)

Mark Takano is the U.S. representative for California's 41st District and the vice ranking member for the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

The veteran population is changing, and rapidly. Almost a quarter of all veterans are now minorities and nearly one in ten veterans is a woman. These demographics reflect just some of the changes that the increasing diversity of military service members present, and underscore the need for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to adapt to these changes through the services it provides to our veterans.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, on which I currently serve as vice ranking member, has an important role to play in assessing the needs of this new diverse veteran population and ensuring that the quality of care the VA is providing is worthy of the veterans its serving. In the committee, Democrats and Republicans have been able to work together to address the needs of veterans and make improvements to make the VA work more effectively. We have seen great success with the passage of significant pieces of legislation, including laws passed to improve access to care, protect VA whistleblowers and student veterans, and expand earned benefits like the G.I. Bill.

The 116th Congress will be no exception.

Beginning in January, Democrats have an opportunity to continue the work to advance veterans’ priorities and ensure that they can access their benefits and receive quality and timely care. Helping our country uphold the promises it made to our veterans in return for their service starts with creating a plan to address the current and future challenges the VA will face over the next ten years, addressing the needs of women veterans, protecting student veterans from predatory for-profit schools, and performing proper oversight of the VA and the Trump administration.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will move to address the challenges the VA is currently facing, but it will also lay out a forward-thinking approach for high priority issues that must be addressed in the next decade. The Democratic majority on the Committee will work to create a “VA 2030” plan that will reimagine how the VA can deliver high-quality care, improve management, ensure proper staffing and fill essential employee vacancies. By planning ahead and predicting the changes that must be made over the next ten years, the VA 2030 plan can help ensure that the VA can thrive in the present and flourish in the future.

However, the VA will only be effective if it adapts to changing veteran demographics — starting with effectively supporting and meeting the needs of women veterans. Women, and the experiences they bring with them after their service, need to become a central component of any plan for updating VA programming and benefits and improving VA healthcare. The rates of suicide among women are increasing, and this highlights the need for better mental health services and the hiring of culturally competent staff that can help address the invisible scars and trauma carried after their service. This points to why it is critical to have a full understanding of how women veterans, and other diverse veteran populations, can be better served by the VA.

Another way to ensure that veterans can succeed as they transition back into civilian life is to protect and improve access to their earned benefits. During the 115th Congress, the passage of the Forever G.I. Bill stressed the importance of safeguarding educational benefits. As one of the key negotiators of the Forever G.I. Bill, I fought hard to ensure that the bill included provisions to protect student veterans who were deceived by predatory for-profit colleges.

As a former public school teacher, I know that access to higher education can provide students with a pathway to the American Dream and propel them into the middle class. I also know that student veterans, and their educational benefits, are often the targets of for-profit colleges, like ITT Tech and Corinthian Colleges, that deceive them and deliver a sub-par education.

That is why for-profit institutions that continue their predatory practices by targeting student veterans, cheating them out of their educational benefits, driving them into debt, and forcing taxpayers to foot the bill must be held accountable. Veterans worked hard for their benefits, whether it’s attending community college, an apprenticeship program, or a four-year university, we must hold every institution accountable for delivering on their educational promises.

But it must be underscored that without stable leadership, we cannot have the best VA possible for our veterans. That is why Congress, and specifically the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, must demand greater accountability to get the VA to work for all veterans. Part of the work that must be done is to perform proper oversight of VA leadership and of the Trump Administration. Only by demanding accountability from our leaders, will we be able to restore credibility and order to the VA and shift its focus to serving the people it is meant to serve—our veterans.

Next Congress, under Democratic leadership, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will continue to work to improve the lives of the veterans of our country and ensure that their benefits are protected and that they have access to high-quality and timely care. Leadership of this committee requires a strong commitment to bipartisanship, and members on the committee are going to continue that work to ensure that the Department of Veterans Affairs is far removed from the ideological agendas that hinder opportunities for veterans and negatively impact the care that they receive.

The work to create a VA that works for every veteran continues — the brave men and women who risked it all for our country deserve it.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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