Even a polarized Congress wouldn’t dare allow its rash, hyper-political behavior to get in the way of a workable solution to some of the most serious problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs.
At least, we think.
There is hopeful news in dealing with the veterans crisis as senators announced a bipartisan deal on legislation aimed at improving veterans’ health care. The latest controversy to emerge from that troubled institution involved reports of Veterans Affairs employees falsifying records to conceal long waits for medical appointments.
Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and John McCain, R-Ariz., announced the deal on Thursday, on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.
The agreement would do something as basic but as necessary as allow veterans facing long waits at VA facilities to seek care from private doctors, expand the VA secretary’s authority to fire or demote staff for poor performance, establish 26 new VA health facilities in 18 states and provide $500 million for the hiring of new VA doctors and nurses.
The proposed legislation has other parts to it that should have previously been implemented, such as offering college education benefits to the spouses of service members killed in the line of duty and guaranteeing in-state tuition for veterans at public colleges and universities. It also would establish a commission of experts to examine the VA health care system and recommend improvements.
Since Congress authorized it in 1930, the VA has developed into a behemoth. It is the most comprehensive system of assistance for veterans of any nation in the world, according to its website. And that may be part of the problem. It has grown so large that its unwieldy nature compromises the crucial mission for which it was created.
That’s what happened in the most recent scandal involving lengthy waits for care at VA hospitals, a problem that came to light at a facility in Phoenix. An investigation showed that records were falsified to disguise the length of time that patients had to wait for appointments. Those problems extended throughout the VA’s 1,700 health facilities nationwide.
There were reports of 17 deaths that may have been linked to those long wait times and there are now an additional 18 veterans in the Phoenix area whose names were kept off an official electronic Veterans Affairs appointment list who have died.
Western New York has had its share of problems. It was in this region that the improper reuse of insulin pens exposed veterans to the possibility of infection. Also last year, thousands of patient files at VA hospitals in Buffalo and Batavia were misplaced or damaged. And new figures show that the Buffalo benefits office had the seventh-worst backlog among the VA’s 57 regional offices.
The mounting problems involving the VA have rightfully claimed the careers of top officials, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who fired officials in Phoenix before stepping down. Shinseki’s successor will have a huge task in taming such a large and complicated system. But it has to get done and in short order.
It should be said that once veterans manage to navigate the maze that the system has become, they get excellent care. They tend to be more satisfied than some of their private-patient counterparts. Widespread mismanagement has created a stain on the entire operation.
Congress is showing signs that it recognizes its obligation to step up and fix the problems. Members must act in a rational and bipartisan manner in finding solutions. Our veterans deserve as much, if not more. McCain and Sanders have made a good start on that task.