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Keep VA’s progress on track amid changes in D.C. and Northport

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie speaks during

Veterans Affairs Secretary nominee Robert Wilkie speaks during a meeting with Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Johnny Isakson. Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

Taking good care of military veterans might be the most uniformly bipartisan priority in the United States. Providing them with accessible, high-quality health care is the primary way we can meet that obligation. But too often we fall short.

Across the country and for years, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been beset by scandal. On Long Island, the VA Medical Center at Northport, which veterans once praised, has come under fire for crumbling infrastructure, poor management and inadequate staffing.

Over the past year, champions and critics of the federal department and the Northport facility began to see signs of improvement. Now, with leadership changes at both underway, momentum could be lost.

That cannot be allowed to happen.

In Washington, the VA is about to get its fourth secretary in four years, with the nomination of Robert Wilkie expected to be approved by the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee this week, then quickly affirmed by the full Senate. But Wilkie will come on board facing big challenges.

Since 2014, the VA has been rocked by one outrage after the other. Understaffing that left veterans without care for as long as 125 days was uncovered across the nation, along with falsified records hiding these delays. More than 40 veterans in Arizona died while waiting to get care in a facility that falsified wait times.

Since then, wait times have been reduced somewhat, but epidemics of suicide and opioid addiction have added to the agency’s challenge. And politics have increasingly bedeviled the VA. When Secretary David Shulkin stepped down in March, scandals involving ritzy travel for him and his wife were partly to blame, but Shulkin’s opposition to privatizing the VA, an issue on which he is correct, hurt his cause with many in the GOP.

With the resignation in June of Northport VA Director Scott Guermonprez, who is leaving for personal and family reasons, that facility will have its fourth director in 18 months. Northport’s facility has suffered crumbling buildings, leaking roofs, surgical wards closed by dangerous air-conditioning malfunctions, understaffing and an angry workforce. But the consensus is that in his year in Northport, Guermonprez made progress. He replaced department heads, was more aggressive about maintenance, and got two eyesore buildings that are falling down on a federal schedule to be demolished in the next 12 months.

Nationally and locally, the challenge for the VA is to keep and improve the hospitals that are skilled at providing specialized veteran care intact, but also to become nimbler. That means more telemedicine and access to private doctors for veterans who have trouble getting to the hospitals or who need specialists the VA cannot easily provide. It means letting the VA’s community-based outpatient clinics, like the five on Long Island, provide more services. It means recognizing when more such clinics need to be opened and when other solutions, like providing transportation to appointments, make more sense.

We made a deal with veterans when they signed up. They did their part. Now we have to do ours on Long Island and across the nation.

The editorial board