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Congress, With Help of Private Ryan, Can Save the VA | Commentary

Nothing short of fundamental reform from Congress will ensure the nation’s veterans receive the medical care they deserve. A new report from the White House on the dramatic failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs indicates how deep the problems run and how much reforming Congress must do.

But how can lawmakers reform something so sprawling and dysfunctional? As they weigh various proposals, Congress should look to servicemembers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The American Cemetery at Normandy, and other overseas burial grounds, are overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The ABMC is made up of 11 commissioners appointed by the president for a lifetime term. They serve without compensation, elect a chairman and work with civilian professional staffers. Chairmen have included such distinguished Americans as Gen. John J. Pershing and former Secretary of State Gen. George C. Marshall.

Congress should consider a similar commission approach for the VA. It could bring together prominent Americans to advise and support the VA. Congress and the president could jointly appoint the commissioners. Such a board could better translate goals into operations and provide gravitas when dealing with appropriations and management challenges.

Internally, the board could also serve as a nexus to coordinate and organize the recommendations of 24 advisory committees that currently support the VA and help cut through the silos of red tape.

The board would make its decisions by consensus, much like the Federal Reserve or a college board of trustees, and present a unified front to Congress and the administration so that the VA’s needs are fully appreciated and depoliticized. The prestige of its members would give the next VA secretary the chance to collectively rebuild a VA fit for the 21st century. And the board would give lawmakers confidence that the VA once and for all is on the right path.

Just above Omaha Beach, where 3,000 Americans died or were injured on D-Day, sits the American cemetery. Sea breezes, trim lawns and sculptured trees frame the pristine white marble grave markers in rows so long that one could imagine the curvature of the Earth. Beautiful red roses provided a vibrant contrast. It is a sanctified place, quiet and respectful. American flags stand high above, forever far from battle. It is all perfect, save for the sadness.

“Too bad the VA hospitals aren’t kept up that way,” quipped my father, a 90-year-old World War II combat medic — begging the question — why have we honored the dead so well while neglecting the living?

With a properly structured commission put in place by Congress, that could change.

In the last scene of “Saving Private Ryan,” the dying Capt. John H. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, gasps, “Earn this.” Moments later, the image of Ryan morphs into his older self standing above Miller’s grave. Surrounded by his family, he is haunted by Miller’s sacrifice. He turns to his wife, “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”

The men buried in the American cemeteries in Normandy and around the world have earned their country’s enduring affection and honor. But the paradox remains, while we honor the dead, the living struggle to receive the medical care that is their due. America’s living veterans have earned quality and timely medical care. We owe them at least that much — and the right commission could provide the key.

Dr. Joseph J. Fins is the E. William Davis Jr. M.D. Professor of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College and the author of the forthcoming book, “Rights Come to Mind: Brain Injury, Ethics and the Struggle for Consciousness.”

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