Almost 117,000 military veterans live in Hawaii, more than 93,000 of them having served in wartime. They are among the almost 22 million nationally whose performance of duty to country at the highest levels ought to entitle them to excellent care upon their return to civilian life.
But a seemingly endless series of reports about failures by the Veterans Administration at the national level makes it clear there is no such assurance. The mountainous backlog of applications for benefits has been long documented. Beneficiaries have waited for a year or more to get through even the first hoop, with various bureaucratic turf battles and congressional impediments slowing efforts to modernize the system or expand the use of expedited processes.
The more recent news may be the darkest revelation, even when viewed against this gloomy background. A true cost of war is the lingering toll of medical problems faced by soldiers returning home, and when that is not being addressed, it represents the ultimate failure of government to its citizens.
Some of the VA’s hospitals — with particular focus on a facility in Phoenix, Ariz. — are being accused of delays in medical care that have led to dozens of deaths. It’s unconscionable that an agency tasked to identify and fix the problems causing these delays and backlogs instead resorts to concealment that simply postpones any resolution.
Hawaii-born Eric Shinseki, a retired four-star general and since 2009 the secretary of the VA, has been subpoenaed to address the allegations in testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Although he has avoided media interviews, Shinseki must be forthcoming with details for the committee on what he knows about the reports of veterans secretly placed on a waiting list for care, resulting in the deaths of at least 40 veterans. The manipulation appears to be a strategy for hiding the reality of how long veterans must wait when what is desperately needed are reforms to improve responsiveness and efficiency.
However, it’s premature to insist on his resignation from office, something that the American Legion, the nation’s largest veterans organization, has called for him to do, along with two of his top administrators.
Instead, the best course is to demand action. President Barack Obama has said he will stand behind Shinseki with the expectation that he follow through with the findings of the VA inspector general. The Veterans of Foreign Wars seems to agree.
As the VFW’s national commander, William A. Thien, rightly observed: "It is paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to re-establish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office."
Belatedly, Shinseki has responded to calls by the VFW and others charging the VA for failure to monitor or audit processes at its Phoenix facility, where the most egregious allegations have been unearthed. On Thursday, the secretary ordered a "face-to-face" audit at all VA clinics.
In addition to Phoenix, reports have emerged at a facility in San Antonio, Texas, that officials ordered clerks scheduling medical appointments to alter the records to conceal delayed treatments for some veterans. And the VA’s Office of the Medical Inspector said a clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., altered appointment records to make it appear that doctors had met agency goals by seeing patients within 14 days.
VA officials, all the way up the chain to Shinseki’s office, have long been aware of the delay problems. Last year it revamped some of its tracking procedures to gain a better gauge of wait times.
According to the VA’s 2013 Performance and Accountability Report, only 41 percent of new VA medical patients were seen within that two-week window.
Correcting the myriad, systemic problems at the VA is going to require collaboration between Congress and the Obama administration, but it seems to be caught in the same political vise that grips so much of the federal government. U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the veterans committee, seems willing to wait until the IG’s report on Phoenix is released.
That much is encouraging, but many critics, including former Defense Secre- tary Robert Gates, have laid part of the blame on Congress, saying it has micromanaged the VA and failed to pass laws enabling improvements to be made.
This dysfunction cannot be endured. The coming hearings on the VA woes provide the opportunity for straight talk, from leaders of executive and legislative branches, about making the system work for the ones who served.