Reduce VA wait times in Md. [Letter]

Throughout my decades in public office, I have always viewed our service to U.S. veterans and their families not only as a top priority but as an obligation. So I was disheartened, to say the least, to learn that veterans here in Maryland are waiting an average of 80 days before seeing a primary care doctor through the VA health care system for the first time ("VA's acting chief tours Baltimore medical center," June 17).

The wait in Maryland, revealed in a national audit conducted in the wake of a national VA health care scandal, is the fourth worst in the nation. It is despicable to think that men and women who have survived the front lines have died waiting to see their doctors at home. Many of us in Congress are working hard to provide our nation's veterans access to the most state-of-the-art medicine available, but those efforts are wasted if patients must wait nearly three months to see their doctor.

This week, I joined Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin as well as Rep. John Sarbanes in a tour of the Baltimore VA Medical Center and a candid discussion of the problem with local leaders. We were pleased to hear that the VA Maryland Health Care System has brought in additional primary care doctors, adding Saturday hours at the Baltimore VA Medical Center and personally contacting the patients who have been waiting the longest. Mental health patients can now get same-day appointments.

Now, it's our turn. This week, a Congressional conference committee will begin hammering out differences on legislation that will address the problem on the national level. The House passed measures that will enable veterans to see a non-VA doctor if they have waited longer than the wait-time goals or if an appointment is not available within those goals, usually about two weeks. Patients who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility will also be able to see a private physician if they like. This legislation comes on the heels of measures that will make it easier to fire VA officials responsible for the long waits and alleged cover up as well as a bonus freeze for senior VA officials.

These are good first steps. More must be done. No veteran should ever have to wait to receive the care they have earned through their service and sacrifice.

C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger

The writer represents Maryland's 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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