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Senator Lankford Applauds Implementation of VA MISSION Act on Senate Floor

CLICK HERE to watch Lankford’s floor speech.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today applauded the ongoing rollout of the 2018 VA Maintaining Internal Systems and Strengthening Integrated Outside Networks (MISSION) Act, or VA MISSION Act for short. The Act includes significant reforms to improve the VA’s current healthcare delivery system and help provide veterans with more choice and fewer barriers to healthcare. Lankford also commemorated on the Senate floor the anniversary of Juneteenth, the day African Americans in the South were finally informed of the end of slavery in our nation.


 On Juneteenth

Mr. President, I rise today to be able to talk about the MISSION Act. The MISSION Act is a pretty remarkable transition that’s happening right now in VA centers across the country. But I need to pause for a moment in recognition of today’s date. Today is, as many people know in the Senate, if they don’t know, they should know, today is June the 19th. In the south, it’s the day we recognize just as Juneteenth. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln January 1, 1863. But it took two years for that information about the emancipation of the slaves to actually reach multiple areas of the south. The date that was officially recognized was June the 19th. That’s the date we recognize each year as June the 19th, as Emancipation Day. In Oklahoma, in my great state, it actually didn’t reach us until June the 14th, 1866, almost a year after it reached Texas. That’s just how long communication took at the time to be able to get the information. It is a remarkable thing to be able to think about. 154 years after emancipation reached the southern states and the word of that reached it and after the end of the civil war, we still as a nation pause on June 19th every year to remember how horrible it was to treat humanity as property. May we not forget where we were so that we never get close to that again. I know I came to talk about the VA, but being that it’s June 19, I couldn’t help but also talk about that for a moment.

On the VA MISSION Act 

Let me go back to talking about the VA. In 2014, the scandal breaks in the VA in Phoenix. As the entire nation paused for a moment and saw what was happening in the Phoenix VA and saw how broken the health care system was.There have been some very significant changes since that time period. The Choice Act was passed, giving veterans the opportunity to be able to get access to health care if it was backed up and slow at their own VA health center. If they couldn’t get there within 30 days to see someone, then they would have the opportunity to be able to see someone in their local area, or if it was a long distance to get there. They weren’t required to drive long distances from rural areas to get to an urban VA center, they could start to get there. Now that passed with the Choice Act, and it was the beginning point of reform in the VA centers.

There were lots of problems at the very beginning of the Choice Act. Finding access to doctors, doctors getting paid, how far is the distance, is it based on mileage on the road, is it as the crow flies? All kinds of things they got worked out within the first year or so. But within the first year, we started seeing veterans getting access to care closer to home and faster. But early on in that success, we also realized there are needs for major changes.

Not long after that, this Congress passed a reform of hiring and firing at the VA, giving authority to supervisors at VA that if they had someone that was not taking care of our veterans, to have a faster path to actually review this person, evaluate this person, and if they would not change their behavior and their workforce, to be able to release them. That special authority was given to VA’s all across the country just a couple of years ago, and VA Centers have use that to dramatically change the face of the people taking care of our veterans. Across the country, multiple individuals that were not putting veterans first have now been removed from VA centers, including from those in Oklahoma. And people that are passionate about taking care of veterans were put in those spots. And then just a year ago this month, Congress, along with President Trump, prioritized veterans again by passing the MISSION Act.

The MISSION Act takes the choice from a couple years ago to the next logical step. It gives the ability for veterans to have streamlined access to be able to get to community care programs. They can still choose to go to their veterans centers and many veterans choose to do that. They want to go there. They like their physician. They like their nurses. They like the process they go through there. But some of them want to go to a physician that’s in their community, maybe their spouse or their kids go to that same physician, it’s a family physician that their family has known for a long time. And so instead of being required to head to the VA center, they have the option to be able to get care in their own community. It’s also a situation where if they need a specialist and the veterans center doesn’t have it that’s close to them, they can get access to that specialist in the area that is close to them.

I will never forget the day that I dropped into one of our veterans centers in Oklahoma. I dropped by on a Sunday. Quite frankly, I wanted to be able to meet the veterans and knew none of the administration would be there. And I could just speak to folks in the hallway and there wouldn’t be pomp and circumstance of a Senator walking up and down the halls. So I got the chance to visit with veterans and see how they were doing, see how their care was going. As I walked into one of the rooms introduced myself and asked how his care was going, he said, ‘My care is going great, my doctors are terrific’’. I said, ‘Is this your first time to be in a veterans center?’ He said, ‘No, I’ve been in one before, but it wasn’t here. It was in Seattle.’ I said, ‘Did you live in Seattle?’ His response was, ‘No, I didn’t live in Seattle. I lived here in Oklahoma, but I needed a certain type of cancer care the VA said to get that special type of cancer care, I had to go to Seattle to go to that veterans center and get it.’

My next question was obvious. ‘Did your family get to go?’ And he hesitated and said, ‘No, I was in cancer treatment for six weeks by myself because the VA wouldn’t cover my family to go there.’ So for a veteran that served us and who had to be away from his family in service multiple times, then had to be away from his family again when he had cancer treatment. Why in the world would we do that when in Oklahoma we have the Stephenson Cancer Center, one of the top cancer hospitals in the country is in Oklahoma City. We have great cancer care in Tulsa. We have some phenomenal facilities that could have taken care of that veteran, and his family could have participated with him and not been separated again at one of the most traumatic moments of his life.

Guess what? With the passage of the MISSION Act, that will never happen again. Specialty care like that can be done locally. When there is a great specialist nearby, they can get to that specialist nearby. The MISSION Act really was a sea change and how we make sure the promise to our veterans is being maintained. It’s not about putting all veterans, of all cases, of all care in a veterans center and saying, ‘That’s where everybody has to go.’ It is going back to the veteran and saying, ‘What would you prefer? What’s your preference? What’s best for your treatment?’ And best for their treatment may not be that VA center there. It may be a high-skilled, highly prepared, quality set of doctors in a specialty center nearby for diabetes or cancer. This allows them to be able to do that.

Now, I do commend our veterans care centers in Oklahoma. There are some really great leaders that are there that are working very hard. And in a transition in personnel that has occurred in the last couple of years and hard decisions that have been made, they have put in some really top-notch folks and I am proud that they’re in my state and the way they’re taking care of our veterans. But as we implement the MISSION Act in the days ahead, my hope is that we continue to give veterans the opportunities to make choices about their own care and that we continue to achieve stronger and stronger skill set in our veterans areas. That our VA centers become areas of high quality for the areas where they are the best and where they have the highest quantity of issues. When a specialist is needed, maybe it is outside of our veterans center to be able to make sure that those veterans get the best care that they possibly can.

I look forward to the regulations continuing to be rolled out, as they are being rolled out right now. Most of all, I look forward to looking our veterans in the face and saying, ‘Are you getting the care that you need?’ And hearing their answer of, ‘Yes’. That’s what I look forward to.