Saturday, November 14, 2015
Billy Long: Veterans in my district deserve more transparency from VA
Before I was elected to Congress, the VA initiated the Capital Asset Realignment for Enhanced Services (CARES) process and recommended new clinics be built in Springfield and Joplin to serve our veterans. The findings of the study were not announced until early 2011. I was eager to help oversee this plan and help it become a reality for area veterans. However, as I have learned over my nearly five years of working with the agency, VA business plans can often turn into moving-target guidelines and - in the case of Springfield and Joplin - offer far less transparency to local veterans than any reasonable observer would expect.
Initially, this plan called for the Springfield clinic to open its doors to patients in February of 2015 - allowing greater access to more than 10,000 veteran enrollees living within a 30 minute drive of the clinic. A short time thereafter, the Joplin clinic was expected to begin taking patients as well and serve approximately 9,000 veteran patients annually. In addition to saving taxpayers hundreds of thousands in travel reimbursement dollars, I believe that this plan's efficiencies can provide veterans in our communities with the excellent care they deserve.
Since this is now November 2015, you may wonder if you missed the ribbon cutting back in February. Rest assured, you haven't, as the VA hasn't even decided on a site location for the Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC) in Springfield - much less one for the clinic in Joplin. Since I took office, I've corresponded with VA officials for answers about this delay on many occasions but have always walked away frustrated with the lack of answers I've been given. In earlier meetings, I learned that many delays were caused by private contractors' inability to agree with unreasonable VA lease stipulations to fund the clinics and, after meeting with VA officials in October, I have now been told that the timetable for the Springfield CBOC's opening had been reset to early 2019 - more than a decade after this plan was first devised.
To make matters worse, the VA recently denied a meeting request with leaders of the City of Mount Vernon to discuss ideas to save the Gene Taylor CBOC, which the agency has planned to close in favor of the Springfield CBOC upon its opening. I was flabbergasted that the VA would have outright denied an opportunity to sit with Mount Vernon city leaders and hear any plan that may be able to help serve their community's veterans.
On behalf of those veterans, I demanded that City of Mount Vernon leaders be able to have this meeting. With this added pressure, VA officials have now agreed to the discussion. It should have never needed my involvement for this meeting to take place, but I welcome this change of position and hope that it will bring more transparency than the agency has previously shown.
The VA's self-proclaimed mission statement is to fulfill President Lincoln's promise "To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan." They also list Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence as their five core values. The lack of planning and transparency that have become commonplace in regard to these two new clinics falls far short of these values. I will do everything in my power to see that the veterans in my district receive better transparency throughout this process and assurances that these clinics will bring them the care they were promised.