More than 300,000 veterans died while on the waiting list for care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and that's more than just the latest failing from an agency saddled with problems.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent said that revelation, released in a report from the VA Inspector General's Office this month, underscores the need for sweeping change.

"It's obvious that major reforms are necessary at VA," the Lehigh County Republican said in an interview with the Reading Eagle last week.

The VA's shortcomings have drawn the attention of Congress for years. The Philadelphia regional office of the VA has endured well-deserved criticism for delays in processing claims for veterans.

Now, the VA Inspector General's Office said that among the VA's 867,000 pending applications, 307,000 veterans had died (that's 35 percent of those on the waiting list). Most died more than four years ago.

The inspector general's office said it's difficult to determine how many of those who had died were actively awaiting health care benefits, but it speaks to the VA's inefficient record keeping.

Dent, the chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees the VA, argues for a new approach to providing care for veterans. He wants the VA working with the civilian health care system to offer better care for veterans, closer to home.

The VA will always be providing health care for veterans, Dent said. But he envisions a different model, with the VA focusing on health issues specific to the military, including mental health.

When veterans are battling health issues, especially those that aren't tied to their military service, Dent said they should be able to get care outside the VA. A Berks County veteran should be able to go to Reading Hospital or Penn State Health St. Joseph for cancer treatment, Dent said.

"Why shouldn't veterans who chose to serve their country be able to choose their hospital and doctor?" Dent asked.

Dent stressed he knows there are plenty of good people working at the VA.

"I have great respect for the people who work in the VA system," Dent said. "They are dedicated. This is about a structure that is in need of serious reform."

As the VA struggles to serve more veterans, Dent said that he thinks there is growing support in Congress for changing the way veterans get their health care.

"Veterans deserve better than this, and frankly so do the taxpayers," Dent said.

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