After Friday’s announcement that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has resigned, area Congressmen are offering their thoughts on how the agency should change in months ahead.
After weeks of political turmoil following the reporting of widespread waitlists and other deficiencies in veterans being able to find care, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday announced that he will leave his post.
Congressman Bill Owens, a Democrat of Northern New York who represents Fort Drum, said his initial reaction to Shinseki’s resignation was that he was disappointed “the situation has gotten to this point.”
But with all the attention on the VA, Owens said it’s now time for lawmakers to focus on the veterans.
“And to make sure that we’re doing the things and taking the steps that will correct the problem, and then going forward, putting in place processes and procedures to that will ensure it doesn’t happen, and then equally important, putting in place management that will monitor these processes and procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen again,” said Owens.
Owens, who served in the Air Force, said a change in the VA could help address a significant problem in his largely rural district: the lack of specialty clinics and long distances veterans must often travel to obtain care.
“I think that that’s critically important, particularly when you have people who are Vietnam veterans, and WWII veterans, and Korean veterans who may be there in their 70s and 80s having to go hours to either Albany or to Syracuse, I think they need to have the option to go to their community hospital if that entity has the service available,” said Owens.
Hudson Valley Republican Chris Gibson, a retired Army colonel, thanked Secretary Shinseki for his service and said the change in leadership alone will not fix the problems within the VA.
“We do thank General Shinseki for his long and faithful service to the country, I think he has made the right move by stepping back right now. I know the president is looking for a replacement, and then we should all expect that it won’t just be the Secretary, there will be a whole new team that will come aboard. We look to them to be transparent, aggressive, and accountable,” said Gibson.
Gibson said although Congress has increased the funding for the VA over the past few years, it’s a systemic change in policy that’s mostly needed.
“And beyond that we need benchmarks and milestones so that within six months the American people can get an update on how all of this is progressing, and that the people’s representatives in the Congress can come out and report to folks to how we are moving it back in the right direction,” said Gibson.
Gibson mentioned the recently passed VA Accountability Act that provides more discretion for hiring and firing in the administration, and with that he forsees more changes in top-level leadership.
The congressman also mentioned the importance of including more funding toward a VA program where veterans are referred to local doctors.
“I believe that if we expand that program we will reduce the backlog, we’ll have more timely treatment for our veterans, and ultimately I think it’s going to relieve some of the stress on the entire piece here,” said Gibson.
Capital Region Democrat Paul Tonko said any changes going forward should be made in a non-partisan manner.
“We cannot have partisan divides over an issue like this. These veterans have served all people of this great nation and they deserve and require our respect,” said Tonko.
Tonko said the work ahead will not be an overnight fix and will span administrations.