Friday, May 16, 2014

Veterans deserve more than sensational headlines

   Reports surfaced recently that the Veterans Administration Health Care System in Phoenix, Ariz., created a secret waiting list to cover up long waits for doctor appointments. Allegedly, at least 40 patients died while still on that unofficial wait list.
    The report has produced howls from Congress demanding Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head on a platter. Veterans, however, deserve more than political bloodlust and indignation.
    The off-the-books waiting list is apparently not limited to Phoenix. Similar practices have been alleged in VA facilities in other states as well. The problem is that the VA continues to be overwhelmed by the number of veterans seeking care. More than 5 million patients were treated by the VA in 2013. Despite claims of improvement, wait times can still stretch out for months.
    All of us should have paid more attention to the VA’s problems before our men and women in uniform put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf, but we didn’t and they did. It became pretty clear pretty quickly when they began coming home from Afghanistan and then Iraq with massive numbers of traumatic brain injuries and lost limbs that the costs no one wanted to talk about were going to be way higher than we were ready for, and they were going to go on for decades. VA budgets had risen significantly since 2003, but from 2010 to 2012, funding actually dropped as draconian sequestration cuts and government shutdowns took over for reasoned debates on government funding.
    Congress once again is kicking up a lot of dust—shocked that veterans are having so much trouble getting care. The VA administrator in Phoenix was placed on administrative leave. Secretary Shinseki faced a congressional committee hearing this week. An Inspector General’s probe is under way.
    Certainly, Shinseki needed to explain how he intends to hold health services administrators accountable. He should also have been given a legitimate opportunity to lay out what the VA really needs if it is to get its wait times under control.
    Meeting the health care needs of veterans will require more than the canning of a few bureaucrats. Congress should quit playing to the cameras. The American electorate should quit allowing them to do so.
    It’s time for an honest assessment of both the progress and the mistakes made by the VA, and to pay—without reservations—whatever is required to meet the promises we made to America’s 21.9 million veterans.

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