Congress can move fast and in a bipartisan way when it wants; last week, it felt an irresistible compulsion to do just that. With rare speed, both the Senate and House passed bills addressing well-documented troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
As examples and symbols of patriotism and service, veterans are one constituency neither party can afford to offend. And there were plenty of other reasons to move quickly. A scandal that started in Phoenix over long waits for patients — and the false lists that were devised to hide the problem — has since revealed dysfunction across the V.A. system. The FBI office in Phoenix has started a criminal investigation.
An internal audit of the V.A. also showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. An additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets who asked for appointments never got them. V.A. Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation last month moved the debate from finger-pointing to possible remedial action.
The result of last week’s congressional votes should be shorter wait times for thousands of military veterans seeking medical care.
The Senate bill, passed with only three Republican dissenters who feared it was a “blank check,” would authorize payments for outside, private care for veterans over the next two years, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. The price tag: $35 billion.
The House bill, passed unanimously, would spend about $620 million.
Whatever the final law looks like, it is going to come at a big price — and that suggests a question that Congress in its haste did not consider. If sending veterans to non-V.A. medical facilities is a good short-term solution to long waiting lists, why is that strategy not a long-term solution as well?
The answer, of course, is that the V.A. is a sacred cow that no politician dares to oppose. Instead, the V.A. health-care system — ironically, a much more complete government-run system than Obamacare — is to be made larger and perhaps even more unmanageable.
It’s good that Congress moved quickly to fix short-term problems at the V.A., but it should have spent more time thinking about a long-term fix.