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The VA Debacle

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The twilight of the scandal-plagued Obama administration is upon us, and voters are faced with a real conundrum. Which of the failures of progressive governance should be confronted first? The Mideast is an even more blood-drenched goat rodeo than pessimists predicted. There are 50,000 illegal immigrant children warehoused at the border. The IRS is starting to bear a resemblance to the Stasi. Then there’s the roiling Obamacare disaster, and the related politically driven crusade against religious liberty. The Bergdahl swap. Benghazi. Fast and Furious. One could go on. 

AP_Photo.St_.Louis_Post-Dispatch

AP Photo / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

But amidst this smorgasbord of fiascos, addressing the body count at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) should be given priority over all other domestic scandals. The breadth of problems at the VA has proven continually surprising, even as the torrent of unrelated bad news knocks new revelations about VA corruption off the front pages. The Office of Special Counsel investigating the VA is looking into 67 whistleblower complaints—25 of which have been initiated since June 1. Just last week, a Philadelphia VA employee told Congress that mail “sat in boxes untouched for years” at the pension office. VA workers then falsified dates to make the backlog of claims appear smaller, thus ensuring they got bonuses and salary increases. How corrupt was the Philly VA? When congressional investigators came to visit, the Philadelphia Regional Office put them in a workspace that was bugged with video cameras and microphones. And the VA’s logjammed bureaucracy continues to kill people. On July 3, a 71-year-old veteran collapsed in the cafeteria at an Albuquerque VA hospital. He died waiting 14 minutes for the fire department to arrive and take him to the emergency room in the adjacent building. “They have so many workers,” one veteran at the hospital told the Associated Press. “They could have put him on the gurney and run faster than that ambulance.” 

There’s no question that the extent and urgency of the problems at the VA demand swift and comprehensive action. Further, this scandal is easier to address, as it is harder to politicize, than some of its rivals. The problems at the VA also serve to highlight issues underlying other Obama administration scandals. When it’s proven that corrupt and incompetent employees exist throughout the VA, it will be harder for Democrats to defend keeping such people entrenched at the IRS. And shining a light on the VA’s version of government-run health care—our very own single-payer system for millions of veterans—would further accelerate public demand to repeal Obamacare. 

Unfortunately, even with the lives of veterans hanging in the balance, the wheels of government can’t be counted on to institute the right reforms. Fortunately, the House and Senate VA Conference Committee is working on legislation to fix the VA. They would do well to heed the suggestions of Pete Hegseth, the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America. Hegseth has offered some sensible guidelines for what the legislation should accomplish. 

* First, there need to be clear standards for how long veterans can be made to wait and how far they need to travel to get health care—no more than 21 days and 60 miles. 

* Second, there need to be meaningful assurances that veterans’ claims will be reimbursed promptly. Medicare and Tricare seem to have no problem getting reimbursements out in 30 days, so there’s no excuse for the VA taking years. 

* Third, any additional funding given to the VA should be limited and paid-for. The VA has a $160 billion annual budget, which has grown 68 percent since Barack Obama took office. Even Obama concedes that “before we start spending more money, our first job is let’s take care of some basic management issues that I think can be fixed.” More money sloshing around in the VA system without a clear purpose is only going to encourage corruption. 

* Finally, there should be accountability measures to make sure these reforms are maintained. 

In adding to Hegseth’s suggestions, we would again underscore the need to clean house. The departure of VA secretary Eric Shinseki sent a message, and his replacement, former Army Ranger and Procter & Gamble executive Bob McDonald, seems a good one. But it’s doubtful one leader can reform an institution so broken. Firings in the VA ultimately need to be systemic, not symbolic. Whistleblowers have reported extensive malfeasance at every level of the system, including the physical abuse of veterans and other criminal activity. Guilty employees need to be terminated and subject to criminal charges if warranted. 

Alas, the federal government is so dysfunctional that these basic reforms constitute an ambitious agenda. But America’s vets have never given up when the odds were against them. The least we owe our veterans is to be as dogged in protecting them as they were protecting us. 

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