If any issue has to transcend partisan posturing, it’s fulfilling this nation’s obligations to our military veterans.
That means providing the high-quality health care veterans need, ensuring them a decent place to live, keeping them out of poverty, enabling them to acquire the training and apply the skills that will get them good jobs, and helping them to return successfully to civilian life. Too often, that isn’t happening.
In the debate over the scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, slogans have mostly crowded out facts so far. Both parties have been more intent on finding an election-year issue than a bipartisan solution. Some politicians merely seek another excuse to bludgeon President Obama. Better late than never, that’s finally changing.
An audit released last week by the V.A. defines the alarming scope of the problem. More than 57,000 patients at V.A. medical centers nationwide — fully 90 percent of returning troops — had to wait at least three months for their first appointments. It’s supposed to take no longer than two weeks, a goal the audit says is “simply not attainable” with current resources.
About 13 percent of schedulers said their bosses told them to falsify records — keeping two sets of waiting lists, doctoring appointment dates — to make wait times appear shorter. These practices, the audit conceded, were not isolated but “pervasive” throughout the system. The scheduling delays may have contributed to some veterans’ preventable deaths.
The current controversy erupted over conditions at the department’s hospital in Phoenix, but they aren’t confined there. The audit looked at all of the V.A.’s largest hospitals and outpatient clinics, including facilities in Ann Arbor that treat veterans from northwest Ohio as well as southeast Michigan. The operations of the Ann Arbor system, which serves more than 61,000 area veterans, face further review.
These scandals didn’t arise during the Obama Administration, although the President has been slow to address them. The V.A. health-care system has been broken for years, with too few doctors to treat too many patients.
As the number of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq has grown — and as their combat-related medical needs have become more complicated — the system’s backlogs, pressures, and demands also have increased. At the same time, lawmakers have denied the V.A. needed funding increases.
So what are finger-pointing politicians in Congress prepared to do now to fix the V.A.? A bill passed unanimously by the House last week would enable veterans who live more than 40 miles from a V.A. medical facility to seek care by a private provider.
A bill the Senate approved last week is more comprehensive. It is sponsored by a political odd couple — Bernard Sanders, the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a political independent and self-described socialist from Vermont who caucuses with Senate Democrats; and Arizona Republican John McCain, a 2008 presidential nominee and former prisoner of war in Vietnam.
Their bill would enable veterans who can’t get a V.A. appointment in 30 days to obtain medical treatment elsewhere at the government’s expense; that option would last for just two years. It sets aside $500 million to allow the V.A. to hire hundreds more doctors and nurses. It authorizes the department to lease 27 new facilities in underserved areas across the country, although the V.A. has had problems with costs and delays in other recent lease deals.
Mr. Obama must move quickly to hire a new V.A. secretary. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the former department head, resigned under congressional pressure late last month. Dr. Delos (Toby) Cosgrove, the president and chief executive officer of Cleveland Clinic, took himself out of the running to succeed him.
Mr. Shinseki, himself a wounded veteran, worked effectively to fight homelessness and suicide among veterans, and to dismantle bureaucratic obstacles to releasing disability benefits. Yet some lawmakers evidently never forgave him, when he was Army chief of staff, for contradicting — correctly, as it turned out — then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s lowball estimate of the number of U.S. troops needed to fight the Iraq war.
Now there are calls for a criminal investigation and prosecution of the V.A. records fraud, along with demands for greater protection of department whistle-blowers. An earlier V.A. report said some hospital administrators may have manipulated appointment records to qualify for bonuses and raises.
There also are predictable political allegations of a vast, corrupt conspiracy and cover-up at the department. Those who want to turn the controversy into another Benghazi or Bergdahl surely won’t be dissuaded.
Yet many veterans defend the quality of the specialized, lifelong care they get from the V.A. Surveys show that patient satisfaction is often higher with the V.A. than with private providers. But neither cost nor quality is the key issue — access is.
Lawmakers may want to examine more-permanent privatization of parts of the V.A. health-care system, as politically fraught as such proposals tend to be. Some advocates also call for greater operating freedom for the V.A.’s regional centers.
This need not, and should not, mean taking apart the department’s unique, integrated medical system. And it certainly wouldn’t justify a reduced funding commitment by Washington to that system.
As Washington pursues long-range reforms, the urgent needs of veterans must be attended to first. My Blade colleague Federico Martinez reported last week on the frustrating encounters some Toledo-area veterans have had with the local V.A. bureaucracy.
A disabled Vietnam veteran from Toledo told Mr. Martinez he is driving with badly impaired vision because he can’t get an appointment at the Ann Arbor hospital until late October. He has to transport his father, a 95-year-old veteran of World War II.
Other veterans and their families spoke of misdiagnoses and of delays in qualifying for benefits. Such obstacles contradict the mission of the V.A., and aren’t acceptable.
America’s veterans served and sacrificed for the rest of us in some of the worst places on Earth. They shouldn’t have to fight another war with their own government when they come home. They need and are owed our help — not political polarization.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.