Imagine honorably serving your country only to be abandoned by your government when you are at your most vulnerable. That is exactly what a recent U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) inspector general report reveals happened in June 2020 in Gainesville.
Staff at the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center denied a veteran emergency care because they prioritized determining his eligibility over saving his life. The veteran died 10 hours later in a nearby hospital.
It’s a tragic story that might have gone differently had the center’s staff valued the veteran instead of the bureaucracy. But, apparently, that was too much to ask. It’s an appalling reminder that our veterans still suffer from neglect at the hands of the government and nation they served.
Only a few years ago, incidents like the one in Gainesville were common across the country. VA staff denied care to veterans in need on a national scale. They also maintained scandalous conditions at their treatment facilities and appointed themselves exorbitant salaries. All the while, America’s veterans endured tremendous suffering.
Finally, in 2014, policymakers took action, and together we passed the Veterans Choice Act, which expanded care for veterans. A few years later, Congress passed my VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which reinforced the 2014 law by further empowering the VA secretary to fire bad employees and enhancing protections for employees who report unsafe and reckless actions. And in 2018, we passed the VA Mission Act, giving vets even more options for quality care.
These laws made a real difference, with veterans now saying, “it’s gotten a heck of a lot better for all of us.”
But the tragic death in Gainesville shows we must keep fighting for our veterans —because new programs and benefits don’t mean anything if veterans’ local VA clinics and hospitals fail them. We cannot accept those failures. Not only is it immoral, but we also cannot expect Americans to sign up if they know their government will abandon them when they finish their service.
That means the VA must publicly acknowledge its faults — acting with responsibility just like veterans did when they served. On this front, the Biden administration has a long way to go.
Despite my letter to the VA secretary and request that the department “demonstrate to veterans and their families” in the Gainesville area that the local center “is knowledgeable, competent, and dedicated to its veteran patients,” officials have done little in the way of community outreach. That must change if we are to rebuild trust in the institution of the VA.
Meanwhile, Congress must conduct rigorous oversight, reform old laws and pass new ones as needed. Some recent efforts to improve life for veterans — like my legislation to help vets reentering the workforce pursue careers in science and technology — are already on the books.
Others, like my burn pit bill, will become law soon. When that happens, it will provide much needed assistance for millions of veterans suffering from toxic exposure, as well as for their families who care for them.
Americans pride themselves on having the greatest military in the world, and rightly so. If we want to keep it that way, we have to see justice is done for our veterans. Otherwise it is only a matter of time before our government’s incompetence catches up with us.
Marco Rubio is Florida’s senior U.S. senator.
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Marco Rubio: VA must take responsibility for death in Gainesville