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Sen. Mark Kirk: Veterans hospitals continue poor care and service

This week, Veterans Administration Secretary Robert McDonald downplayed wait times for health care that veterans face by comparing them to the lines people face when visiting Disneyland. This comparison is a slap in the face to those who have sacrificed their lives to defend our nation.

Secretary McDonald’s comments show the lack of seriousness that is being given to the issues that veterans face. Just this spring, I met with the family of Tom Young, an Illinois veteran who reached out to the VA Crisis Hotline and the Edward Hines, Jr. VA facility for help, but died waiting for care. These types of issues deserve the secretary’s fullattention and leadership — not a flippant dismissal from those tasked with their care.

OPINION

Secretary McDonald frequently discusses the need to change the culture of corruption at the VA. However, change must come from the top, and effective leaders do so by example. If Secretary McDonald was serious about changing the VA culture, he would give a straightforward account of the problems that need to be solved, such as unacceptable wait times for care.

But instead, every week my office hears the facts about VA care from whistleblowers who work at Illinois VA facilities and see our veterans harmed and ignored at the hands of corrupt VA bureaucrats. These complaints have included horrid examples of roaches being served in veterans’ food, and pervasive black mold in a facility that houses the frail and elderly. To add insult to injury, these brave whistleblowers are almost always bullied and retaliated against when they attempt to expose wrongdoing. The substandard treatment of our Illinois veterans has to stop.

Since coming to Congress, I have made it my mission to fight for my fellow veterans. Last week, the Senate passed my bipartisan appropriations bill which, for the second time under my leadership, funds the VA at record levels. At the same time, the bill protects whistleblowers who expose patient abuse, increases transparency at the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, boosts health services for female veterans — such as access to in vitro fertilization — improves screening of medical personnel, prevents the overprescription of opioids by VA doctors, and increases funding to reduce veteran homelessness rates.

My bill also includes the Requiring Accountability and Inspections for Dining Service (RAID) Act, legislation I authored after learning from whistleblowers that a cockroach infestation had been allowed to exist for years without remedy in the Hines VA kitchen. It’s deplorable that our nation’s heroes had to share a plate with cockroaches. The RAID Act will keep VA kitchens clean and veterans’ food away from roaches by ensuring that VA kitchens are subject to the same laws and inspections as public hospitals and restaurants. In addition, my bill contained an amendment to address the concerns of mold contamination brought to me by 18 brave, catastrophically injured and/or disabled long-term housing residents brought to my attention the black mold left festering in their living quarters.

Secretary McDonald’s comparison of VA wait times to being at Disneyland is either tone deaf or an intentional downplaying of the conditions in the trenches at VA. In either case, his comments underscore the ongoing corruption and ineptitude within the VA, where bureaucracy is put before the needs of the brave men and women who served our country in uniform.

There are those who say the VA cannot be reformed, that the VA is unfixable. I find that view unacceptable, and I will keep fighting each day to ensure that our heroes have the very best treatment and care options, because I know they have earned it.

Mark Kirk, a Republican, is the junior senator from Illinois.

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