VA Healthcare Town Hall with Rep. Ocasio-Cortez

On April 17, 2019, NYC Veterans Alliance co-sponsored a Town Hall with National Nurses United, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Vietnam Veterans of America, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Help Is On the Way, Disabled American Veterans Chapter 23, and Veterans for Peace Chapter 34. The discussion was centered on the quality of care received by veterans in the Bronx, and ways the VA should responsibly implement the MISSION Act, scheduled to go into effect on June 6, 2019.

Below are the remarks given by Founding Director Kristen Rouse:

Good evening. My name is Kristen Rouse. I am a 24-year veteran of the United States Army, Army National Guard, and Army Reserve. My service has included three deployments to Afghanistan. I am the Founding Director of the NYC Veterans Alliance, a policy advocacy and community-building organization that advances veterans and their family members as civic leaders.

Veterans are entitled to the best healthcare that America can offer. We deserve healthcare delivered by providers and systems that understand the unique needs of those who have served our nation in wartime and in peacetime years, and the unique conditions related to our service, such as toxic exposures like Agent Orange and burn pits; the physical, mental, and emotional injuries of our wounded warriors; and the adverse impacts on the men and women who've experienced sexual assault in our military ranks. We deserve world-class healthcare from the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs. And we deserve persistent, long-range oversight, responsiveness, and vigilance from our Members of Congress, who serve effectively as a "board of directors" for VA healthcare, to ensure veterans have the best possible healthcare experiences and outcomes. Veterans have done their part to serve this nation. We need for the system to work, and to continuously improve.

We can take heart that veterans in NYC overwhelmingly express a high degree of satisfaction with our VA hospitals. In our recent survey of NYC veterans about their VA healthcare, 93% of respondents said their care at the Brooklyn VA was either excellent or good. 89% of respondents said their care at the Bronx VA was either excellent or good. 69% of respondents said their care at the Manhattan VA was either excellent or good. We need to support what's working for veterans--especially the healthcare providers we rely on, and the unions who advocate for them.

But we must also keep close watch on what needs to work better. In the same survey where veterans rated our NYC VA hospitals highly, we saw gaps in care and areas for improvement. Women veterans expressed dissatisfaction at two times the rate of male veterans. Women veterans were also twice as likely to say they felt they were not recognized as veterans. We've also received strong feedback from veterans who received confusing or conflicting information about being authorized for care from providers; they've told stories of problems in getting the VA to pay those providers, or to reimburse expenses the veterans believed were authorized. In Brooklyn, we've had to rally veterans to oppose closures and reductions caused by staffing shortages and shifting budget priorities.

As we approach the rollout of the VA MISSION Act, bringing massive expansion of veterans eligible to seek care from private healthcare providers, and as we anticipate reviews of VA facilities nationwide for utilization and possible closure--we must learn from recent experiences, feedback from veterans, and the important statements of bodies like the US Digital Services, VSOs, and VA leaders themselves. 

We call on our Members of Congress to ensure that the VA rolls out new eligibility criteria for veterans to receive private care:

ONLY when it can show that its technology can support the demand;

ONLY when we can ensure veterans have the support needed to understand what is and isn't paid or reimbursed--so that no veteran ends up stuck with unforeseen healthcare bills;

ONLY when we can ensure proper guidelines and oversight are in place to protect veterans from bad actors--like we've seen exploiting educational benefits--from misleading veterans and under-delivering on services while reaping federal tax money by taking advantage of veterans;

ONLY when we can ensure our VA hospitals are fully staffed and fully open to meet the unique healthcare needs of our veterans with high quality care.

We must not face situations like we've seen in Brooklyn where veterans who fought for our nation--some more than 50 years ago--must fight to keep VA healthcare open, available, and functioning as intended. Our leaders in Congress must stand up for us, and be fully engaged and involved.

But just as democracy requires that all of us get involved and do our part--veterans also need to step up and be part of the solution. If you have issues with your VA healthcare--let your elected officials hear from you. Give them the opportunity to make things right for you, here and on the floors of the United States Capitol. 

If you're a veteran, please enroll in VA healthcare. Be counted as a veteran who utilizes VA facilities. And if you can, get active in your healthcare. When you advocate for your own VA healthcare, you improve care for the veterans who will come after you.

View photos from the event HERE.