Of all the scandals and pseudo-scandals of which President Barack Obama has been accused, the Department of Veterans Affairs debacle is the most damaging for at least three reasons:
One, health care — including VA health care — was the signature issue of his election and re-election.
Two, the VA, for all its flaws, also is held up as a model by leading liberals and progressives of how effectively a gigantic government program can deliver quality health care directly to patients without passing through private providers or insurance companies.
That’s mostly true. In April, for example, the independent American Customer Satisfaction Index found VA patient satisfaction to be 84 percent for in-patient care and 82 percent for outpatient. That’s as high or slightly higher than the survey found for civilian hospitals for the third year in a row — and considerably higher than the survey’s 66 percent satisfaction rate for federal agencies in general.
But the current scandal is not found in the VA’s care as much as in the hurdles veterans have faced as they try to enter the system to receive that care. Most alarming are reports, revealed to CNN by a whistleblower, that about 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment at a Phoenix VA hospital.
Three, Team Obama can’t say the president wasn’t warned, although White House press secretary Jay Carney seemed to try.
On May 19, Carney said in a briefing that the president learned about the Phoenix deaths from CNN. A day later, Carney walked that back, saying the issue of excessive wait times at VA hospitals is “not a new issue” to his boss.
Indeed it is not. Conservatives pounced on a memo reported by the Washington Times that the George W. Bush administration prepared for the Obama-Biden transition team. It warned the VA should not trust the wait times that its medical facilities were reporting because mid-level officials were cooking the books.
Such are the problems that have turned into a major investigation of more than 25 VA facilities. Some Republicans have ballyhooed that memo as a political gotcha against Team Obama, while conveniently downplaying how much the problem also went unaddressed by Team Bush.
In fact, Government Accountability Office reports have been warning about the wait-times problem and the unreliability of the VA’s reporting since at least 2001. Since then, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a new wave of eligible veterans for which the VA system, strained by congressional funding cutbacks, was poorly prepared to handle. Congress unfortunately has been too reluctant to pay for this long-term human cost of wars they were so eager to support.
What is to be done? Calls for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, a decorated veteran who lost part of a foot in the Vietnam War, to resign sound more like scapegoating — a familiar Washington ritual — than problem solving.
You could see that reflex at work in the administration’s unimpressive announcement that Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, resigned, even though he was about to retire in less than a month anyway.
“We don’t need the VA to find a scapegoat,” as a statement released by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said. “We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA.”
Indeed, step one must be for the Obama administration to figure out what happened in Phoenix and other facilities, hold the right people accountable and do whatever it can to help veterans currently waiting for services.
Congress and the administration should listen to experts on veterans issues like Linda Bilmes at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In congressional testimony, she called for replacing the existing system, which already approves 90 percent of claims from newly returning veterans, with one that approves all of them and then audits a representative sample afterwards to catch fraud.
That commonsense idea would take a giant step toward fulfilling the too-often broken promises that we, a grateful nation, make to veterans for their service. Everyone in Congress and the White House says they support our troops. It’s time for them and the rest of us to show it.
Email Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.