Arkansas veterans regularly contact me requesting help navigating the complex Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). These men and women who served and sacrificed for our country face a backlog of veterans’ claims, long waits in the appeals process and accessibility to the health care benefits they earned.
Congress has a responsibility to resolve the problems our veterans face within the VA bureaucracy. That begins with rigorous oversight. As part of my oversight commitment, I recently met with Arkansas VA officials at the Little Rock VA hospital and the Conway Community Based Outpatient Clinic. We discussed the unique challenges facing VA health care in our state and the need for modernization to meet the needs of our veterans.
Congress recently took pivotal steps to follow through with our promise to veterans with the passage of The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014. While this legislation addresses many of the shortcomings within the VA system, it will take time to properly implement these changes. There is still room for improvement.
I voiced my concerns about the lack of an integrated VA pharmacy network during the visit with Arkansas VA officials. This is particularly concerning because of the increase in our veterans who struggle with opioid addiction. Data suggests a clear correlation between prescription drug abuse, mental illness and suicide among our veterans. A 2012 Army report found that 29 percent of suicides involved individuals with a known history of psychotropic medication use, including anti-depressants, and pain medicine, such as opioids like hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.
We need a connected network of VA pharmacies to protect against potential abuse and make sure that our veterans receive only the dosage of medication prescribed. We need to correct the practice of over prescribing pain medication.
I’m committed to working with my colleagues on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to find a solution. The good news is that members of the committee are onboard to address the problem with our veterans’ dependency on pain killers. There are a number of dedicated Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs) that work tirelessly to address these problems as well.
I look forward to working with the new VA Secretary Robert McDonald to tackle this issue. He plays a crucial role in implementing these reforms and changing the culture at VA. His background in business management and dedicated service to our country made him the ideal person to fill this position. I appreciate his enthusiasm to lead VA during this critical time and he’s hitting the ground running. Secretary McDonald directed Arkansas facilities to hold town-hall events by the end of September to improve communication with, and hear directly from veterans. He also ordered an independent review of scheduling and access practices at all VA medical centers.
Our veterans should not face a battle against the agency tasked to help them. I will continue to work with my colleagues to push for improvements, encourage efficiency and monitor the progress of VA reforms to make sure our veterans receive the benefits they earned in a timely manner.