By Congresswoman Julia Brownley
Originally published in the Ventura County Star
As a congresswoman and as the ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee on health, I am deeply troubled and disturbed by recent allegations of misconduct at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs facility and other facilities across the country.
Upon coming to Congress, I immediately requested to sit on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee so that I could work on behalf of our large veterans’ community in Ventura County. The committee has a long tradition of working in a bipartisan fashion. I am very proud to work on this committee, not only because of its mission, but also because I have been able to work closely with both Democrats and Republicans toward one goal: making sure our country lives up to the promises made to our veterans.
The committee has had numerous hearings in the last year and a half, requiring testimony from VA leadership, from veterans service organizations (VSOs) and from independent outside experts to not only identify problems at the VA, but also to find solutions.
Challenges with the VA are not new, dating back to the founding of the Veterans Bureau and Bureau of Pensions in the 1920s. The influx of more than 2.8 million Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans, along with an aging population of veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam has made the challenges even greater.
When the allegations regarding manipulation of data at the Phoenix VA and the deaths of veterans while waiting for appointments across the country came to light, the committee acted in a bipartisan manner to investigate immediately and to issue subpoenas when information was being withheld.
Between the release of the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s interim report and information that came to light at the May 28 committee hearing, I felt it was necessary to call on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. While I have great respect for the secretary and his service to our country, I felt that we needed new leadership to make the sweeping changes necessary to ensure that this does not happen again.
The committee will continue to provide oversight over the coming months as the VA works to address this situation, and I will continue to work with my colleagues on the committee in a bipartisan manner as it does its work. Our veterans deserve no less.
While we work through the allegations in Phoenix, I have continued to concentrate on the facilities that service our veterans locally.
I spearheaded a Southern California congressional delegation letter requesting a full audit of the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, and I have insisted on an audit of the Oxnard-based outpatient clinic. I will remain laser-focused on the results and insistent on immediate fixes to any and all problems found.
After hosting a congressional field hearing at CSU Channel Islands in February, where I invited several local organizations to testify, we received commitments from the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center to provide more resources here in Ventura County.
From that hearing, we received commitments to reduce wait times for mental health appointments, to add full-time intake personnel locally, to increase space at the Oxnard clinic, and to ensure greater coordination and collaboration between the VA and our local VSOs.
Since that hearing, the VA has reported that it has added full-time staff locally for intake. It has hired additional psychiatrists, increasing “full-time equivalent” personnel from 3.5 to 5.8 — and is looking to add additional personnel due to the 12 percent increase in patient visits. It is currently negotiating to increase space. It has organized a community collaborative meeting with our local veterans organizations. Lastly, it has reported reducing appointment wait times for mental health care.
We have more work to do, but we should also acknowledge progress when it is made and build upon it.
On Monday, June 30, I will be holding my second veterans’ claims workshop at the Ventura County Community Foundation in Camarillo. I am also pleased to be part of the Ventura County Stand Down (July 25-27) and to support and participate in the Ventura County Military Collaborative’s expo in August.
While the VA has had serious problems for decades, problems that must be fixed, here in the county we have an extraordinary community of organizations and individuals dedicated to working with our veterans and their families. I am pleased to be a part of that effort and to represent not only our veterans, but also the remarkable community of dedicated individuals supporting them right here in Ventura County.
My door is always open.