When I was 17 years old, I chose to enlist in the United States Marine Corps and fight to defend our country’s freedoms. However, as a veteran of several overseas tours and eight years of service, I am unable to choose my own doctor. This year, Congress has a historic opportunity to rectify this paradox by giving veterans like me more health care choices.
While I was on a convoy in the Al-Anbar Province of Iraq in 2004, my unit was ambushed by enemy combatants and the vehicle I was in was hit by an IED. I didn’t realize until after the firefight was over that I received shrapnel on the left side of my body.
After two more tours, including another combat tour in Iraq, I was honorably discharged from the Marines. A month later, I went to my Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility for the first time to get physical therapy for several injuries, including rehabilitation for a rotator cuff tear. I was expecting to be cared for immediately, but what they told me astonished me.
The VA said I had to wait a shocking eight months just to get an appointment to receive therapy for my service connected injuries.
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Even worse: by the time I got my appointment, I was told that my shoulder hadn’t healed properly. I was upset — if I had been given proper care in a timely fashion, that would have been prevented.
Unfortunately, my story is all too common for veterans around the country. From long wait times, unsanitary conditions, and negligent management, veterans have been subjected to a system that has repeatedly failed us.
The men and women I served with are first-class people; we should not have second-class care. If the VA is unable to provide high quality and timely care for veterans, they need to let us go elsewhere.
Although Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has done a great job of pushing real reforms in the VA this year — he was instrumental in passing VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act — much more needs to be done.
President Trump recently signed a bill that authorized emergency funding for the Veterans Choice Program. This imperfect program allows veterans to see doctors outside the VA if someone meets certain requirements — such as if you have to wait more than 30 days or travel over 40 miles for an appointment.
The Veterans Choice Program has seen a large increase in demand over the past year as veterans opt for choice more than ever. Yet, many issues remain with this program, which was passed as a temporary response to the Phoenix VA scandal and was never intended to be a permanent solution to veterans’ health care choice needs.
Right now, the Choice Program is similar to many other government programs — an ineffective system filled with administrative and bureaucratic rules. Secretary Shulkin himself has recognized these flaws and declared the status quo is not acceptable.
Permanent, broader reform must center on the veteran and their clinical needs. We need a system that will allow us to use our benefits inside or outside of the VA, at our own discretion, and remove the VA as the middleman. The Veterans Health Administration should also test new governance structures and innovative pilot programs that deliver better care for the changing veteran population.
Freedom and the dignity of the individual are the cornerstone of this country and what I fought to defend. My experience with the VA left me discouraged with the quality of care I received, and I lost faith in the department’s ability to help me. But it pushed me to dedicate my post-military career to help reform the VA so future veterans did not have to go through what I did — and I won’t give up.
Congress must respect veterans’ freedom and self-worth, and empower us with real health care choice this year. Choice isn’t just common sense — it’s what veterans deserve.
Ben Rangel is the Texas field director for Concerned Veterans for America. Rangel served in the U.S. Marine Corps and was awarded a Purple Heart medal for his injuries sustained in combat. Rangel currently lives in McKinney with his wife and family.