In a world where “scandals” often seem to be invented and overhyped, the recent news about the medical care provided to veterans by the Veterans Administration actually qualifies for the name. It’s an embarrassment, and an outrage.
The issue has to do with the quality and timeliness of health care. In a number of VA facilities across the country, there have been reports that veterans face long delays to receive care — and VA employees are acting to hide the truth or falsify statistics so the wait times don’t look so long. The most notorious news came from Phoenix, where CNN reported on allegations that veterans died waiting to receive care, that a VA facility maintained a secret waiting list, and that VA personnel were trying to cover up the fact that more than 1,000 sick veterans were required to wait for months to receive treatment. Those allegations are now being investigated by the VA and by Congress.
The world being what it is, many people focus on the politics of this scandal and its potential impact on the upcoming elections. Those inevitable stories, however, are part of the problem. They reflect our apparent, growing inability to respond to these stories as human beings as opposed to hyper-political partisans caught in the endless spin cycle.
So here’s a reminder of the reality. People become veterans by serving their country in the military, risking their lives and health to keep us safe, perform essential services, and fight our wars. We owe them our gratitude, but we owe them more than lip service — we also have to keep our word to provide them with excellent medical care. If veterans are waiting for months while they move slowly up a waiting list to see a doctor, we obviously aren’t meeting that sacred obligation, and we should be embarrassed as a nation.
As is so often the case, the bureaucratic reaction is just as deeply disturbing as the underlying reality. Rather than doing something that might actually help the men and women they are supposed to serve, employees at the VA facilities thought about making themselves look good — which is how they came up with the coverup schemes and secret lists in the first place. Their CYA attitude is infuriating, but by now we shouldn’t be surprised, because it seems to be the default reaction of bureaucrats everywhere.
One VA official has resigned, but veterans groups say that doesn’t mean much because he was supposed to retire this year, anyway. The Secretary of the VA, Eric Shinseki, says he’s “mad as hell” about the scandal and is on a mission to get to the bottom of the problem. But Shinseki has been the head of the VA for years, since the beginning of the Obama Administration. What’s he been doing about the wait time issues during that time? Why should we have confidence that he’s up to the task of changing the bureaucratic culture of an agency that may well have lost sight of its true mission?
I’m hoping that this scandal doesn’t just fade from the front pages, as so many scandals do. I’m hoping that — for once — the Administration stops spinning, our elected representatives stop bloviating, and we collectively get to the facts and take action to fix the problems at the VA. We owe our veterans that much, and so much more.