The horrific allegation that at least 40 veterans have died while waiting for care has the Obama administration, elected officials and the professional commentariat in a tailspin trying to figure out what to do about the years-long train of mounting scandals at the Veterans Administration.
Much of the discussion centers on management problems. It’s a bipartisan uproar that defies the customary lines along which debate typically falls in Washington. Democrat Laura Fjeld, out on the hustings campaigning for the 6th Congressional District seat in North Carolina, is calling on Obama to fire Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki, while Republican House Speaker John Boehner rightly questions how terminating the top guy would do anything to address the systemic issues at the VA.
Talk on National Public Radio’s “The Diane Rehm Show” on May 22 centered on how VA medical centers across the nation have reportedly kept separate sets of books to avoid logging appointments into their official reporting systems so that local directors could manipulate their stats and qualify for performance bonuses.
As an alternative to firing Shinseki, Col. M. Thomas Davis, a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, suggested instead that the chief needs “greater latitude” to make personnel adjustments when staff does not perform appropriately.
As if the carnage, chaos and devastation of war can be managed!
We have fought two wars in the past 13 years, maintaining combat operations that exceeded the duration of either the Vietnam war or World War II. Lifesaving technology has dramatically reduced battlefield fatalities, while consequently increasing the number of soldiers who come home maimed and injured. The psychic wounds inflicted on soldiers who were part of a massive, decade-long deployment are beyond quantification.
Is it any wonder that when we dump an unmanageable caseload on the VA and demand that they treat veterans in a timely manner that the administration would resolve the impossibility of squaring the circle by cooking the books?
For years, the VA Regional Office in Winston-Salem has struggled to get on top of a backlog of disability claims stretching back as much as 18 months. At one time the accumulation of files in the office even raised questions about whether the structural integrity of the building was compromised. North Carolina senators Kay Hagan and Richard Burr have diligently and repeatedly demanded that the VA improve its performance, going so far as to ask President Obama to give the problem his personal attention. Lawmakers said the situation was inexcusable that veterans were not receiving care, and administrators agreed that it was inexcusable. When the administrators didn’t have the resources to handle an overwhelming workload, but pledged to address a address a situation that everyone agreed was inexcusable, one could easily predict that we would start stumbling down a path of self-deception.
No one in Washington can say this because both Democrats and Republicans have adopted a position of austerity. It’s not politically palatable for any lawmaker who aspires to power — or pundit who wants to maintain respect in the club — to call for increased federal spending.
We should all be ashamed.
We made it a priority in 2001 and 2003 to wage war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We elected George W. Bush president twice, in 2000 and 2004. We cheered the invasion of Afghanistan and gave him a blank check to deploy troops in Iraq based on a fictitious claim about nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. That includes then Sen. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president in 2016.
I personally opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I didn’t vote for Bush in 2000 or 2004. But we the people did elect Bush and authorize the two wars by our democratic exercise of electing representatives to act on our behalf. I own responsibility for those decisions every bit as much as those who voted for Bush and supported the wars. When you’re a citizen of the United States, whether things go your way or not, you have to take responsibility for the consequences.
We made it a priority to wage war, but are we willing to give just as much significance to our veterans? Now that the bill has come due, are we the people willing to honor our commitment?
We’re deluding ourselves if we think demanding accountability from mid-level administrators, Secretary Shinseki, President Obama, the Republican Congress or Sens. Hagan and Burr will solve the problems at the VA.
Until we the people demand that our government raise the revenue and allocate the funds to provide adequate services at the VA, the blood of those 40 veterans is on all of our hands.