Indefensibly long waiting times for veterans to receive care is not a new problem. The Veterans Affairs inspector general’s report issued this week notes this at the beginning of the report’s executive summary.
"Since 2005, the VA Office of Inspector General has issued 18 reports that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy waiting times and the negative impact on patient care," the report states. "As required by the Inspector General Act of 1978, each of the reports listed was issued to the VA Secretary and the Congress and is publicly available on the VA OIG website."
This time the issue is finally hitting home and taking hold in our politics. At the Phoenix, Ariz., veterans hospital, veterans had an average wait time for a first appointment of 115 days. And this is for those who were actually on waiting lists, for the report also found that about 1,700 veterans in need of care were "at risk of being lost or forgotten" after being kept off the official waiting list. The hospital actually reported an average waiting time of 24 days -- an utter lie.
"We have substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility," Richard J. Griffin, the department’s acting inspector general, wrote in the 35-page report. It found that "inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic throughout" the VA’s 1,700 health facilities nationwide, including 150 hospitals and 820 clinics.
A growing political firestorm has ignited around retired general Eric Shinseki, Veterans Affairs secretary, with increasing calls from both Republicans and Democrats that he resign. They may be right. Shinseki is a good man, who as a four-star Army general accurately predicted that the occupation of Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops, despite Bush administration fantasies to the contrary. However, a new person at the helm of the VA may be necessary at this point, and a political heavyweight who can knock heads would be best.
But make no mistake, blame for this state of veteran care extends far and wide. The bills for reckless decision-making early in the 21st century have come due for payment. The launching of two long wars, while at the same time cutting taxes and encouraging civilians to go shopping, has clearly led to a veterans’ care system which does not have the capacity to take care of the casualties of our recent wars, along with aging veterans from earlier periods.
From recent wars, conservative estimates place the number of wounded in action from the eight-year-long Iraq War at more than 30,000. From the Afghanistan War, which has been ongoing since late 2001 to this day, the wounded in action total more than 19,000.
"In recent years, as a result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.5 million more veterans have entered the VA health care system," said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. "Congress must do everything possible to make certain that the VA has the financial resources and administrative accountability to provide the high-quality health care and timely access to care that our veterans earned and deserve."
We are disappointed in President Obama for apparently not seeing this day coming and for not sounding a warning bell to the American people that the care of our veterans had reached such a state. Still, we wonder if he had sounded the alarm if Republicans in Congress would have given up their usual obstructionism on this one issue. It’s doubtful.
For example, Sanders earlier this year introduced comprehensive legislation to improve veterans’ health care, education, job-training and other benefits. The measure was sidetracked last Feb. 27 when only two Republican senators voted with 54 Democrats and independents to advance the measure.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) complained recently about the $21 billion, 10-year cost of the comprehensive bill.
"If you think it’s too expensive to take care of our veterans then don’t send them to war," Sanders said during the exchange with Rubio.
Indeed, if any good things can come from this domestic quagmire, one would be a real "national conversation" about our eagerness to engage in military action, the lack of involvement in this action of most Americans of military age, and our unwillingness to pay for adequate care for those who do serve. At any rate, we and our government have the immediate obligation to move from near-universal lip service to our veterans to making sure they have timely and adequate medical care.
~ Mark E. Rondeau