Weekly Columns

Congress recently came together to uphold a promise to our veterans by passing the VA MISSION Act. The bill, which is set to become law, will strengthen and streamline the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare services and its community care programs.

This is important because veterans should have access to the best healthcare and services in a timely manner regardless of where they live. 

With these reforms, a veteran and his or her doctor will decide where that veteran will receive care—taking into consideration the veteran’s healthcare needs and the availability and quality of both VA and community care.

For largely rural states like Arkansas, this makes all the sense in the world.

We have two VA Medical Centers in the Natural State—Little Rock and Fayetteville—as well as facilities in neighboring states that often serve Arkansas veterans. The healthcare providers and staff at those facilities, and our Community-Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs) in Arkansas, truly do an excellent job in caring for our veterans.

But the VA Medical Centers are in populated areas, which in cases where veterans need more advanced care than a CBOC can provide, means a full day trip for many veterans. It is unnecessary when a veteran could receive similar quality care outside the VA system in his or her community.

The service options provided in this bill will give veterans who live far from a VA facility and need frequent follow-up care easier access to local providers and walk-in clinics.

As noted in a letter signed by over thirty VSOs supporting the VA MISSION Act, the legislation is an effort to “supplement, not supplant VA healthcare.”  

That is important to highlight. Much like the Choice Program that preceded it, the new system that will be established by the VA MISSION Act is not meant to replace VA healthcare. Rather it builds on the foundation laid out by the Choice Program, which addressed many shortcomings within the VA system that led to the wait time crisis. 

Last year, I launched a listening tour to hear from Arkansas veterans about their experiences with the Choice Program so we can better meet their needs. I heard from Arkansas veterans who have been able to get quality care from private providers in their own community when the VA system could not meet their needs. That is a good thing.

But as the veterans I met with noted, the Choice Program has its share of troubles. I heard repeated stories of difficulties navigating the complex and confusing bureaucratic process. This legislation aims to alleviate those problems. 

While VA implements the new system, we cannot afford to let care slip for our veterans. That is why we made sure that the VA MISSION Act authorizes funding to continue the current Choice Program for one more year.

In addition to the improvements to healthcare delivery, the VA MISSION Act will enable us to conduct better and more consistent oversight into how the VA spends money on veterans’ healthcare, improve the VA’s ability to hire high-quality professionals and create a process to evaluate and reform VA facilities so they can best serve veterans.

These are all big steps in the right direction and the unified efforts of both parties, in both chambers of Congress, made sure the VA MISSION Act would pass. If we continue to work together in this vein, we can help ensure our nation’s promises to our veterans are kept.