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Opening Statement of Hon. Dan Benishek, a Representative in Congress from the State of Michigan

Thank you Chairman Buerkle.  Good morning everyone. It’s good to be home.  I would like to thank all the veterans and their guests who are in attendance.  I would like to thank our local Veteran Service Officers who have given their time today to participate in this hearing, as well as the VA administrators who will provide us insight in how to improve health care for our veterans.  Additionally, I want to thank the staff of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for their hard work bringing Congress all the way up here to Michigan’s U.P.

I would also like to introduce the Chairman of the Veterans Subcommittee on Health, Congresswoman Anne Marie Buerkle.  Congresswoman Buerkle represents the people of New York State’s 25th Congressional District.  She graduated from St. Joseph’s Hospital School of Nursing as a Registered Nurse and went to work in New York City’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital.  In 1991, she returned to college, this time to earn her law degree, and worked as an Assistant New York State Attorney General representing the State of New York on behalf of Upstate Medical University.  It has been a pleasure working with Congresswoman Buerkle on the committee thus far.  I greatly appreciate her making the trip up here and I value her contributions to the Veterans Committee and her leadership.

Ladies and gentlemen, I worked at this hospital for 20 years, and let me be clear:  the staff at the Oscar G. Johnson Hospital is an incredibly dedicated, hardworking, and professional group of health care providers.  Their commitment to our veterans, their enthusiasm, and their expertise is beyond reproach.  I am proud to have worked alongside these men and women, and I want to take this opportunity to thank them for their service.  Please join me in applauding these men and women.

With that said, I wouldn’t have dragged Congress all the way up to the U.P., and I wouldn’t have put Congresswoman Buerkle, an admittedly fearful flyer, on a propeller plane from Detroit to Iron Mountain for nothing.  Like everything we do in life, veteran health care in Northern Michigan needs improvement. 

At the start of the 112th Congress, I chose the Veterans’ Affairs as my committee assignment so that I could bring my experience working in the VA health care system to Congress.  So far, my experience on the committee has been very encouraging.  When you bring a veterans’ issue to the committee’s attention, they listen, and work with you to find ways to remedy problems.  And that is what we are here to do today: to get an honest assessment of what needs to be improved within the VA health care system to help our veterans in rural areas.  As I stated, based off my experience, it is not for lack of effort or passion that VA health care providers fall short in providing quality service to our veterans, rather, on occasion, despite their best efforts, they are frustrated by the VA’s central administration.  From my observations, this frustration is caused in part by a lack of autonomy among VA health care facilities in rural areas.

Veterans in rural areas face different challenges compared to veterans elsewhere to accessing and receiving quality health.  As Congresswoman Buerkle can attest, the needs of veterans in this district differ from those in her district in New York, or Chairman Jeff Miller’s district in Florida, or Ranking Member Bob Filner’s in California.  A one-size fits all, top-down approach will not address or anticipate every issue or roadblock to veterans in rural areas, and often they create barriers that wastes work and resources in the these settings, forcing rural VA’s to shift patients at huge costs and patient dissatisfaction.  One point from my personal experience that might help illustrate this point is that leadership at local VA facilities such as this hospital lack discretion on how their funds are spent; a facility’s budget is divided into 3 categories: medical service, medical administration and medical facilities.  Local facilities are not allowed to use funds from one budget “silo” for other necessities: for example, a hospital cannot not use money designated for facility repairs to hire more staff, even if the repairs are unnecessary and the hospital is understaffed.  It seems to me that rural facilities should have the ability to allocate funds as they seem appropriate. 

Another personal frustration I had working in the VA system was the high turnover rate of hospital directors at this facility.  During my time here, I worked with no fewer than 10 directors, a new one for every 2 years.  Two years is simply not enough time to understand the unique challenges of a VA facility in a rural area, and such a short tenure provides little incentive to face these challenges and improve them.  I’m not sure the cause for such a high turnover rate, but if a hospital such as this one hopes to improve their quality and access to health care, it needs stable leadership.  In addition to his prepared testimony, I would request that Director James Rice speak to these issues. 

Before we turn to the panel, I would like to share short personal story that I believe highlights the many great doctor-patient relationships you see at this hospital:

And with that, I yield back the Chair.