Politics

The VA's history of setbacks and missteps

A new chapter could be in store for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

On May 18, Trump announced he plans to nominate acting Secretary Robert Wilkie as permanent head of the agency.

If confirmed by Senate, Wilkie would face a long list of issues.

While the VA is rooted in noble intentions, it has been plagued with problems for years.

The VA has faced reports of excessive and contradictory spending, allegations of inadequate health care, a massive backlog of benefits claims and a top leadership position that nobody can seem to hold down.

It hasn't always been this way. The agency was elevated to federal administration status in 1930, with the intention to honor and care for the men and women who served in battle.

Since then, the U.S. has been involved in a growing list of military operations, including the 17-year-long war in Afghanistan. The VA is struggling to keep up as the need for veterans care continues to mount.

Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Pedestrians walk past the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Some veterans can't get to care centers because they live too far away. The VA's Office of Rural Health is working to address the problem through solutions like telehealth and transportation services.

Other veterans are facing wait times of months, or even years, just to get an appointment at their VA care center. Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, is trying to solve that problem in his own district. In 2015, O'Rourke introduced a proposal to improve the El Paso VA Health Care System. The VA backed the plan and approved it for a pilot test, which O'Rourke says has been going well.

And he doesn't rely on the VA itself to tell him how things are going. O'Rourke's team conducts its own annual survey to gauge how accessible the VA really is to veterans in El Paso.

"We don't trust the VA to tell us how the VA is doing, we trust veterans to tell us how the VA is doing," said O'Rourke, who is running to take on Republican Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas
Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images
Rep. Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas

But the VA as a whole is still facing a long list of problems.

The benefits claims process for veterans is a bit like a game of legal "Chutes and Ladders."

"Veterans have heard stories, but a lot of them are surprised when they encounter the VA," said Jim Vale, assistant director for claims at the American Legion. "The most important thing is to be represented."

Fixing the VA isn't a partisan issue. It's not specific to one demographic group or geographic region. Every U.S. representative has a veteran in their district, and nobody wants to be on the wrong side of the issue.

There's a lot riding on Wilkie's nomination. The VA's new leader will be responsible for the largest integrated health-care system in the U.S., and the well-being of more than 9 million veterans.

— CNBC's Dan Mangan and Amanda Macias contributed to this report.

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