January 11, 2024

Ranking Member Takano's Opening Remarks at Oversight Hearing on Rural Veterans

Press Contact

Libby Carlson

WASHINGTON, DC — House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Mark Takano (CA-39), delivered the following remarks during the Committee’s Oversight Hearing on rural veterans and their access to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare and benefits:

“Thank you, Chairman Bost.  

Rural veterans and their families have long had to navigate an altogether different healthcare experience than their suburban and urban counterparts.  

From hours-long drives to appointments, to housing shortages, to limited access to veterans service officers to file claims, rural veterans experience a unique series of barriers.  

These barriers are likely to harden in the coming years, as hospital closures and healthcare provider shortages in rural areas persist.  

When the VA MISSION Act was passed in 2018, it sought to address some of the healthcare challenges facing rural veterans by creating the Veterans Community Care Program.  

The goal was to better enable veterans to access care from community providers when such care wasn’t readily available from VA.  

While necessary, it has not been the bridge to healthcare access for rural veterans that many had hoped.  

The healthcare infrastructure in rural America has proven too compromised—and, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, too fragile—to meet the needs of civilians and veterans. The need for a robust VA presence in rural America remains.  

Since 2005, more than 100 rural civilian hospitals have closed, according to research conducted by the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program at UNC- Chapel Hill. Another 87 rural hospitals have eliminated inpatient services.  

And according to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, 600 rural hospitals, or about 30% of all rural hospitals in the country, are at risk of closing in the near future. Over half of those are deemed at “immediate risk” of closing. Again, we’re referring here to non-VA, community hospitals.

One need only look to newspaper headlines from across the country to get a sense of how serious these closures are.

Veterans cannot always rely on the community to be there. But they should be able to rely on VA.  

We carry out this country’s moral obligation to the men and women who have served in uniform, in part, by ensuring they have a healthcare system able to meet their needs, no matter the state or territory they live in.

There are some things we simply can’t rely on the private sector to provide. Our Postal Service, our national defense, our police and fire departments; these are services private industry simply can’t deliver in every place they’re needed, especially as there are no profit opportunities, or low profit opportunities. This is becoming increasingly true of healthcare.

This was most acutely highlighted during the worst of the pandemic. We saw hundreds of private healthcare systems effectively buckle or shrink under the strain of public health emergencies and natural disasters, workforce shortages, and infrastructure challenges.  

The Veterans Health Administration was largely able to avoid this. They delivered the highest-quality care to veterans, provided world-class infection control, and delivered humanitarian care to thousands of civilians.  

And they did so with a majority elderly and rural patient population, an aged infrastructure, and an overworked workforce. That, in and of itself, was an achievement.  

But they served us further by fulfilling VA’s role as the backstop to the American healthcare system, aiding nearly every state and territory and dozens of tribal nations.  

More than 6,000 VHA employees volunteered to deploy to assist civilian or tribal health systems from March of 2020 to July of 2022.

I’m so pleased to have with us the President of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Buu Nygren, to share with us the reality rural Native veterans are facing.  

Last September, I visited Navajo Nation and discussed with the former president the myriad of ways VA can partner with tribes and the Indian Health Service to better serve veterans. I’m excited to continue that conversation today.  

Navajo Nation had extensive interaction with VHA during the worst of the pandemic. Dozens of Navajo citizens were transferred to VA hospitals, and dozens of staff, particularly nurses, were deployed to IHS sites throughout Navajo Nation, sometimes for months.  

This collaboration seems to have largely been successful and has prompted many of us to wonder how we might continue collaborations between VA, tribes, and the Indian Health Service.  

As communities continue to lose providers, often VA, Tribal Health Programs, and the Indian Health Service are the only providers left.  

My staff have heard from several tribes over the years about their eagerness to explore collaboration between the two federal health systems and tribes. Ideas such as a dual-use hospital for VA and IHS, where infrastructure and staff would be shared.  

In situations where there is a need for care but a workforce shortage, providing care to both federal patient populations could be the solution.  

We must continue to provide robust support to VA in order to ensure that its workforce and infrastructure remains strong and truly accessible to veterans who need it. I also urge my colleagues to consider how we could really pursue creative solutions to rural access gaps. I believe there are truly opportunities before us if we are willing to do the hard work.

With that, thank you, Mr. Chairman, I yield back."