The men and women who have served their country in uniform deserve better than delay or denial of the medical care they need and have earned. So it is crucial to get to the bottom of allegations of misconduct at the nation’s veterans hospitals. America’s veterans also deserve not to be treated as so many pawns in election-year gamesmanship – but that sadly is proving to be the case in Congress’ increasingly hyperbolic response.
President Obama made his first public comments Wednesday on the growing controversy surrounding allegations that workers at hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs manipulated data or created secret waiting lists to hide the delays that veterans faced before they could see a doctor. Most disturbing have been reports of people who died or were harmed while waiting for appointments and of internal memos detailing techniques to cover up problems.
Obama rightly expressed his concern: “I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should.” He promised that people would be held accountable for any wrongdoing and any deficiencies would be addressed. At the same time, the president properly cautioned that the facts still have yet to be determined; investigation by the VA into a number of facilities and a broader White House review are underway, with preliminary reports expected next week.
That the extent of wrongdoing is unclear doesn’t seem to matter much to those more interested in scoring political points. How else to explain the knee-jerk calls, mainly by Republicans in the House and Senate, for the ouster of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki or the ill-advised and punitive legislation aimed at VA workers?
Shinseki’s contributions include Army service that saw him losing part of his foot to a land mine in Vietnam and his success as secretary in reducing veteran homelessness and expanding services. But they apparently aren’t as important as the fact that his understated demeanor was derided by a late-night comedian. It’s beyond us to imagine how denying bonuses to VA employees would aid recruitment of the very professionals who might help reduce the backlogs that cause the delays in getting appointments.
No doubt the VA has its problems. Delayed treatment has been an issue for decades, and the back-to-back wars of Iraq and Afghanistan with their unique set of injuries have created a further strain. But as was made clear in recent testimony to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, studies have shown that the VA system, which serves almost 6.5 million veterans annually, as a whole outperforms the rest of the health care system by just about every metric. Surveys also show that veterans give VA hospitals and clinics a higher customer satisfaction than patients give private-sector hospitals.
It’s important that the current problems be addressed. But they also ought to be kept in context and veterans not made, as the president put it, into “another political football.”