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U.S. Marines Corps veteran senior Michael Aavang pre­sented his policy brief for pro­posed Vet­erans Affairs health care reform to sen­ators and rep­re­sen­ta­tives during a con­ference in Wash­ington, D.C.

So far, Aavang and nine other student leg­islative fellows for the Vet­erans of Foreign Wars and Student Vet­erans of America have written Con­gres­sional white papers and met with indi­vidual sen­ators and staffers to discuss them and find sponsors. Each fellow researched and wrote a Con­gres­sional white paper that addresses a certain issue, from veteran healthcare and seques­tration to higher edu­cation. Aavang and his col­leagues were also present at a joint Senate and House Vet­erans Affairs Com­mittee hearing where members of the VFW tes­tified.

Aavang said his aim with his white paper is to enable vet­erans in need of urgent care to receive care from local, private resources guar­anteed by the VA.

“I want to be able to say to a veteran, ‘Yes, if an emer­gency happens, you’ll be taken care of,’” Aavang said. “You can go to an emer­gency room, and you won’t be in debt for the next 20 years.”

Aavang said the moment that opened his eyes to VA reform occurred in 2014 during a hearing on the wait-time scandals that revealed the VA’s bureau­cratic neg­li­gence.

“After side­stepping the question for a few minutes the sec­retary finally admitted that, as sec­retary of the VA, he didn’t have the authority to just walk into a room and fire somebody,” Aavang said.

Now, Aavang has the oppor­tunity to effect change, having delved into inves­ti­gator general reports on the VA, com­posed a white paper and policy brief, and attended the VFW 2016 con­ference. His next steps as a VFW fellow will be to enact his com­munity action plan and present his fin­ished white paper in Wash­ington, D.C., this April.

Aavang’s five-step com­munity action plan involves being fea­tured in the Col­legian, engaging with vet­erans in the com­munity, inviting Michigan rep­re­sen­ta­tives to come to Hillsdale, writing a letter to Michigan del­e­gates, and pro­moting a letter-writing cam­paign.

“You’ve got a lot of guys running around the country, who, when some­thing bad happens to them and they get stuck in the emer­gency room, not only do you have a serious malady of some kind, but now you’re worried about being finan­cially ruined because of cir­cum­stances you couldn’t control,” Aavang said.

Vet­erans Choice is the current system attempting to alle­viate the burdens of living in a com­munity without a VA hos­pital. The program targets mostly rural vet­erans who live more than 40 miles away from a des­ig­nated vet­erans’ hos­pital, have excessive travel burdens, or will have to wait at least 30 days to receive care.

“The delays end up hurting people the most,” U.S. Marines Corps veteran sophomore Thomas Schuh said. “Young guys like us, we don’t have cancer or things like that, things that are time sen­sitive.”

He said, however, many older vet­erans will get colon cancer because of the chem­icals they come into contact with in the mil­itary.

“There are lots of people who die waiting to get eval­uated for their level of cancer and to get treatment,” Schuh said. “That’s a big problem. I don’t want to expe­rience that.”

Vet­erans have to jump through hoops to receive com­pen­sation for a spe­cific injury, Schuh said. They must file com­plaints, schedule medical appoint­ments while still in the mil­itary for that injury, and show a record of an ongoing con­dition. If they wait until they are released or begin to notice it after leaving the mil­itary, they still need to establish a record dating to their time in service before the VA can determine com­pen­sation.

Schuh attributed this dis­trust to the VA’s expec­tation that vet­erans will try to use injury com­pen­sation as a way to get money.

“They don’t believe you; they don’t want to believe you,” U.S. Marines Corps veteran junior John Novak said.

While private health care insurance can buffer emer­gency room costs, it isn’t affordable for the many vet­erans going to college or searching for careers.

“As an insti­tution, the VA made a promise to provide care for those who served,” Avang said. “Right now there are major gaps in that care when it comes to urgent and emer­gency ser­vices.”

Aavang said vet­erans should not have to pay for private health care because service to the country is payment enough.

Schuh said the VA should diversify health care options to better address time-sen­sitive, critical ill­nesses.

“I think that it could be run a lot more effi­ciently in the private sector,” Schuh said. “If you’re coming in for routine exams, pain in your leg, some­thing that doesn’t hint at some kind of malignant cancer, then just go to the VA system. But if you do have symptoms, they should be able to have a deferred emer­gency vis­i­tation program.”

Schuh said because the gov­ernment will not give up the VA buildings or control over routine appoint­ments, he could see change hap­pening in emer­gency and life-threat­ening sit­u­a­tions. “There’s no reason it has to be this way with the federal gov­ernment as well-funded as it is,” he said. “For­tu­nately we live in a great country where most people are really friendly and like to support vets, so there’s political support. We should be able to make this better.”