When Woodward and Bernstein did their groundbreaking reporting in the 1970s, they uncovered abuse of power and corruption that led to the resignation of the nation’s highest elected official. It was what a free press can and should do: keep government honest.
But Watergate was ultimately a story about one man and one administration. The VA story is about something much larger: systemic corruption at one of our biggest federal agencies. The Department of Veterans Affairs employs more than 300,000 people and has an annual budget that’s increased from $98 billion in 2009 to more than $153 billion today. Of those 300,000-plus workers, a stunningly low number are primary-care doctors — 5,100. And though the VA’s budget has increased almost 60 percent in the past three years to keep up with an increase of almost 50 percent in patients, the number of VA doctors has increased by only 9 percent.
Small wonder that there are long waits; bureaucrats and administrators don’t treat patients.
That’s why this story is so much bigger than one man’s fall by way of Watergate. This story is not about what departed VA secretary General Eric Shinseki knew and when he knew it, or about what President Obama knew — or should have known. It’s about federal bureaucracies and how they too often serve themselves instead of their customers.
No one person can be blamed for what is happening at the VA, because no one person caused the problem. No one person can fix it. General Patton himself, who wore down the Nazis and their menacing panzer divisions, would have been beaten down by the immense VA bureaucracy.
The man who runs the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, Delos “Toby” Cosgrove, turned down an offer from President Obama to run the VA, citing his commitment to his current job. We all know the real reason he said no.
As President Obama’s chief adviser David Axelrod admitted in a rare moment of candor, the federal government is so sprawling that it’s almost impossible for anyone — even our chief executive officer — to keep track of it. In the early days of the IRS scandal, Axelrod told MSNBC: “Part of being president is there’s so much beneath you that you can’t know because the government is so vast.” Forget too big to fail. The VA and most other federal agencies are too big to manage. And they’re certainly too big to change.
If an army of Woodwards and Bernsteins were unleashed on the VA, can you imagine what they might find? If 1,000 FBI agents used state-of-the-art forensics and software to ferret out corrupt practices, can you imagine what they might unearth?
Already, the inspector general’s report has revealed that those waiting lists and wait times in that one Arizona VA hospital were not the exception but the norm. We now know that those secret waiting lists were not the work of only one or two bad managers; they were at the heart of a system that incentivized such corruption. Worst of all, we learned that whistleblowers were afraid to expose such practices for fear of reprisal from their bosses.
According to the New York Times, Representative Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that whistleblowers at several veterans’ hospitals had told his staff members that they would be threatened if they failed to alter data to make patient-access numbers look good for their supervisors. Miller has rightfully called for a criminal investigation.
“Fear was instilled in lower-level employees by their superiors, and those superiors did not want long wait times,” Mr. Miller said. “Bonuses are tied directly to the waiting times of the veterans, and anybody that showed long wait times was less likely to receive a favorable review.”