Now that Gen. Eric Shinseki has resigned as Secretary of Veterans Affairs under pressure from the crass reactionaries and the weak-minded in Congress, what’s next? Shinseki had been charged with taking over an already flawed and expanding system. He dramatically reduced the wait time for those in line for VA benefits. He helped many homeless veterans get off the streets. He replaced a cumbersome and antiquated system that relied on paper with a modern computer system. And he pushed and incentified hospital managers to cut wait times for medical appointments.
Unfortunately, he was deceived by those who falsified records in order to make themselves look good and receive bonuses. He was never given a chance to weed out those white collar criminals and bring them to justice. And he was not given the time needed to fix the system by those who would rather gain political leverage than tell the truth and serve the public.
So let’s look at the reality of the VA medical system. First, it should be understood that the VA was originally created to serve veterans who had suffered combat wounds and service-related medical issues. It was never intended to provide a lifetime of free medical care to anyone who ever wore a uniform.
Second, the number of veterans seeking free health care from the system has grown dramatically. As Vietnam veterans have aged, they have placed ever greater demands on the system, especially those who were exposed to Agent Orange. So, too, have the veterans of Desert Storm with Gulf War Syndrome. And those who served multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are already flooding the system. Many of these soldiers have returned with severe medical issues, such as PTSD, severe head trauma and worse.
Third, even though the annual budget for the VA medical system has steadily grown, it has not kept up with demand. As a result, many VA hospitals have been woefully understaffed and their workers underpaid. Just recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill intended to give the VA an additional $21 billion to meet its needs. But GOP senators objected to the way the bill was to be funded – by using funds leftover from the Iraq War. GOP senators also decided to play election year politics by trying to add an amendment that would have forced the Obama administration to increase economic sanctions on Iran, even though such a measure would derail current negotiations over the future of the Iran nuclear program. When Democratic leadership refused to allow the amendment, the GOP blocked Sanders’ bill with a filibuster.
I will admit that the GOP did have one valid point with regard to the bill. They objected to further expansion of the VA which would have given even more veterans without service-related conditions access to the system.
So what now?
First and foremost, the new Secretary of Veterans Affairs will need the funds to fill the vacuum of primary care physicians throughout the system. The VA hospital in Phoenix which experienced the most severe delays currently has 400 openings to fill. (You read that right…400!) At the same time, the new Secretary should file fraud charges against the hospital directors who scammed the system, claw back the undeserved bonuses and find replacements for them.
Finally, Congress will need to stop playing the blame game and interrupt election year politics long enough to pass an adequate funding bill. It should also examine the eligibility requirements for VA medical care. All veterans should not be treated equal. Under the current system, taxpayers cannot afford to give all veterans free medical care for life…with or without vouchers. The system should be limited to combat veterans and those with service-related medical conditions. Until this country comes to its senses and creates a universal health care system for all of its citizens and negotiates the cost of care, many veterans can be served through Medicare, Medicaid and private facilities…especially non-combat veterans who can afford private insurance.