Hirono Hears from Veterans, Questions VA Officials on Health Care in Hawaii

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HONOLULU – Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) on Aug. 19 chaired the first Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on veterans’ health issues outside of Washington, D.C. since the Department of Veterans Affairs Phoenix scandal broke.

At the hearing, Hirono heard directly from Hawaii veterans from across the state and questioned VA officials. She raised a number of concerns with VA officials including patient wait times, resource and staffing challenges, and the VA’s long-term plan to provide care for Hawaii’s veterans.

Sen. Mazie Hirono

Sen. Mazie Hirono

Panelists included:

Victor Craft, Concerned Veterans of Oahu

Fred Ruge, Maui Veterans Council

Cummins Kameeiamoku Mahoe III, Molokai and Lanai Veterans

Capt. Elisa Smithers, Hawaii Army National Guard

Robert Strickland, president, West Hawaii Veterans Council

James Tuchschmidt, MD, acting principal deputy under secretary of health, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs

Gina Capra, director of rural health

Bruce Nelson, MD, chief medical officer, Kona Community Based Outpatient Clinic

Wayne Pfeffer, director, VA Pacific Islands Health Care System

Richard Stark, MD, executive director, Primary Care Operations

Col. Lawrence Connell, U.S. Army, chief of staff, Pacific Medical Command

Col. Ronald P. Han, Jr., U.S. Air Force (retired), director, State of Hawaii Office of Veterans Services

David J. McIntyre, Jr., president and CEO, TriWest Healthcare Alliance

To read witness testimony, click here.

Hirono’s opening statement, as prepared for delivery, is below.

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Aloha and welcome everyone.

Thank you to everyone, particularly our witnesses, for being with us today.

We look forward to your testimony on a very important topic — the state of VA health care in Hawaii. I know some of you traveled from the neighbor islands and the mainland to be here today.

Our veterans face a number of challenges in their transition from military service to civilian life.

As a member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, I have met with veterans across the state. I’ve heard about the difficulty accessing information and benefits, including education and health care.

There are too many stories about the struggles finding and keeping quality jobs and affordable housing.

All of these are issues worthy of their own hearings — and rest assured, I will work to address these concerns.

Today, however, we’re focusing on veterans’ health care because it is a bedrock benefit.

Hawaii is home to over 100,000 veterans – 45,000 who rely on VA for their health care.

Providing health care to those that have put their lives in harm’s way to keep our country safe is an ongoing commitment with ongoing challenges.

VA is the nation’s largest integrated health care system.

Its 300,000 employees serve nearly 9 million veterans at 1,700 different points of care across our country.

It is a massive, complex enterprise.

The VA Inspector General (IG) and the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) have brought attention to issues over the years related to VA’s provision of care, management of patients, and other issues.

While VA leadership has sought to address these concerns when they have been raised, implementation throughout the system has been a challenge.

In April, news broke that staff at the Phoenix VA Medical Center had been manipulating the scheduling system.

Veterans were placed on secret waiting lists to cover up the truth about how long Arizona veterans were waiting to receive initial care.

It turns out that these practices were not limited to just the Phoenix VA.

While the investigations remain ongoing, one thing is clear.

The status quo at the VA is unacceptable.

Today’s hearing is the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s third hearing on the “State of VA Health Care” since the Phoenix VA story broke.

It has been approximately 90 days since former Secretary Shinseki announced the VA’s “Accelerating Access to Care Initiative.”

This initiative is a series of directives by VA to make sure that veterans across the country are contacted quickly for their initial appointments.

We will hear about the progress, as well as the challenges, that VA in Hawaii has had with implementation. At the start of this initiative, Hawaii veterans had the longest wait time of veterans anywhere for their initial appointment.

I’m encouraged that this wait time has been reduced, but there remain significant other challenges VA must meet to restore trust with our veterans.

Which is why we will also hear from Hawaii veterans about how they interact with VA, and what they think needs to be done to improve VA for the long term.

Turning to the recently enacted Veterans’ Access to Care Act, this new law was intended to provide resources to help veterans get care quickly from private providers to decrease wait times for initial appointments.

It also makes investments in staff and facilities — including the Leeward Oahu Veterans Clinic — to expand VA’s capacity.

We will hear testimony on how this new law will improve the VA health care system.

And how we not only can make improvements over the short term, but that we can sustain these efforts by understanding what VA needs in terms of staffing, facilities and resources over the long term.

In my meeting with veterans, I understand that improving access to care also means understanding how VA interacts with veterans of every era — from the World War II generation all the way through to the newest veterans.

A two-way communication between our veterans and the VA is a priority.

I look forward to hearing today’s testimony, and continuing this important dialogue with all of you.

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