When it comes to ensuring that our veterans receive the medical care they deserve, our nation is at a critical juncture. It is time to stop pointing fingers and time to fix the problems. The 35,000 Southern Illinois veterans enrolled at the St. Louis and Marion facilities don't deserve games, they deserve results.
I have read letters from constituents, spoken with administrators, front-line VA staff and, most importantly, listened to patients receiving care. It is clear the VA's problems are systemic and require long-term, system-wide solutions. We must address problems resulting from untimely access to care, limited access to private care, and red tape that slows hiring.
Two weeks ago I visited the Marion VA Hospital, as well as the outpatient clinic, speaking with patients and their families. Although most veterans I spoke to said they received quality, timely care, far too many spoke of burdensome paperwork and delays.
As a veteran and 35-year military member, I know the importance of providing for our men and women who serve. That's why I introduced the Veterans Backlog Reduction Act in May 2013, which aims to reduce the backlog of disability claims for our veterans, and is a necessary component to ensure a better health care future for service members. It is not a complete answer, but it is a safety net until the system is improved.
Increasing access to private care facilities will decrease the treatment backlog as well. I support this access. Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives took a decisive step, unanimously approving legislation I supported to give veterans the right to use private care institutions when appointment wait times exceed two weeks or when travel exceeds 40 miles. This is critical to easing the burden on VA medical facilities while also allowing veterans access to the care they need and deserve.
Even with increased access to private care facilities, the VA will continue to struggle to provide appropriate care until it is properly staffed. We see examples of this in St. Louis, where wait times for specialist care are unacceptably long. We see administrators struggling to fill open positions at the Marion VA. Even though it has a wait time below the national average, it still sees delays caused by unnecessary red tape. With 1,400 employees, the Marion VA is currently seeking 200 more employees, most of them medical professionals. That means one out of eight positions is vacant.
Both Marion and St. Louis facilities are looking to expand staff by targeting medical professionals -- understanding that more providers bring faster service. Yet both facilities must work through a 120-day hiring system, months of red tape which unnecessarily delays veterans' access to care. We must reduce that red tape. The quicker these positions can be filled, the sooner patients can be seen.
Another way to increase VA accountability and efficiency is to remove ineffective employees who do not meet the high standards our veterans deserve. That's why I voted for H.R. 4031, the VA Management Accountability Act -- allowing for the expedited removal of unsatisfactory employees.
Our military men and women make great sacrifices for our country. We have a duty to ensure they are properly taken care of. The very least we owe our veterans is dependable, reliable health care.
Congressman Bill Enyart is the representative for the 12th District of Illinois, including the Marion VA facility and Scott Air Force Base. Enyart serves on the House Armed Services Committee.