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U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart on Wednesday told a Utah commission that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs more accountability except maybe in Utah.
"The Salt Lake VA is one of the best, if not the best, VA facility in the country right now," Stewart told the Veterans and Military Affairs Commission during a meeting at the Capitol.
Stewart contends the larger VA system has too many people, many of whom are not held responsible for poor patient care. Under-performing employees are rarely fired and more often reassigned, Stewart told the commission, which studies policy issues related to service members, veterans and their dependents, including the impact of military facilities on Utah.
Stewart said his second son is a physician performing a residency with a VA hospital. Some experiences have made him frustrated and angry. "He has nurses and aids around him [who] didn't care about their patients, and there was nothing he could do to hold them accountable," Stewart said. He did not offer specifics from his son.
Stewart, 56, served 14 years in the Air Force, where he flew a B-1 Lancer. He is the only member of Utah's congressional delegation who has served in the military.
A Republican, Stewart is running for his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives. He faces Democrat Charlene Albarran in the November election.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Albarran agreed with Stewart that too many veterans are waiting to see doctors. She advocates expanding the Veterans Choice Program, which allows veterans to visit private physicians. Currently, veterans must have been on the VA wait list for 30 days and live 40 miles away from a VA hospital.
"And so they would be free to go where they want for their medical care," Albarran said.
She also encouraged veterans to go to a VA facility to learn about the benefits available to them.
George Gutzmer, past commander of the Utah chapter of the Disabled American Veterans, told Stewart at Wednesday's meeting that some veterans using the Choice Program were being sent to collections by doctors' billing services because he VA wasn't paying on time.
"We have veterans that are having their credit ratings turned upside down at a very delicate time in their lives because their bills are not getting paid, and it's not their fault," Gutzmer said.
Stewart said he was not aware of that issue and would look into when he returns to Washington, D.C.