Politics & Policy

The VA Scandal: Two Years On

(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty)
Our veterans deserve better from the nation they have served.

The Veterans Affairs–​scandal headlines speak for themselves. The Daily Beast: “Veteran Burned Himself Alive outside VA Clinic”; azfamily.com: “Dead veterans canceling their own appointments?”; New York Times: “Report Finds Sharp Increase in Veterans Denied V.A. Benefits,” “More than 125,000 U.S. veterans are being denied crucial mental health services,” and “Rubio, Miller ask committee to back VA accountability bills.”

Are these headlines from 2014, when the VA scandal broke? The sad answer is no. All these headlines — and so many more — are from the past ten days, a fact that also speaks for itself.

Two years ago this week — thanks to courageous whistleblowers in Phoenix and a fed-up House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman — the world was finally exposed to rampant VA dysfunction and corruption. Dozens of veterans had died while waiting for care at the Phoenix VA — which was, unfortunately, just the tip of the iceberg. Across the country, VA officials had manipulated lists to hide real health-care wait times. In total, thousands — and possibly far more — met the same fate: waiting, and dying, at the hands of a calcified and soulless bureaucracy. Investigations were launched, and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki eventually resigned.

Even the reflexively defensive Obama administration confirmed the obvious in a June 2014 report, admitting that “a corrosive [VA] culture has led to personnel problems across the Department that are seriously impacting morale and by extension, the timeliness of health care,” with “problems . . . exacerbated by poor management and communication structures, distrust between some VA employees and management, a history of retaliation toward employees raising issues, and a lack of accountability across all grade levels.” The report flatly states that the VA must be “restructured and reformed.”

RELATED: The VA Needs Reforming, Not Reshuffling

Yet, two years after the VA scandal broke, no such restructuring or reform has occurred. Instead, almost nothing has changed at the failing Department of Veterans Affairs. VA officials have kept their jobs, and veterans continue to be treated like second-class citizens inside their own system. But after two years of committee hearings, two years of investigations, and two years of funding increases for the VA, how bad could it really still be? Judge for yourself.

Imagine getting your health care at the post office or the DMV — welcome to health care for veterans.

Today health-care wait times for veterans remain unacceptably high; in fact, they have gone up in many places. Whistleblowers continue to say that records of VA wait times are still being manipulated across the country, with the VA’s own inspector general recently finding that over half of VA medical facilities investigated still use “improper scheduling.” On the benefits side, while the number of backlogged disability claims has come down, the wait for first-time applicants remains, on average, 389 days; it’s over 770 days in Baltimore and 630 days in Boston. Meanwhile, the backlog for appealed claims has skyrocketed to over 255,000 — and most of the veterans on that list have been waiting upwards of three years.

But don’t veterans now have health-care choice? No, they do not. Good legislation was passed in 2014: the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act, which gives veterans a temporary “choice card.” But the choice cards veterans actually receive are barely worth the cardstock they are printed on. Because of congressional restrictions and sheer VA bureaucratic obstinacy, use of the so-called choice card is extremely cumbersome and time consuming, leaving millions of veterans with a card, but still no timely or convenient choice. Worse, thanks to delays in VA payments, veterans who use the card are often stuck with big medical bills.

RELATED: Needed: Reform at Veterans Affairs

Efforts to hold negligent or dishonest — sometimes even criminal — VA officials accountable have also met a brick wall. VA accountability rules aimed at senior managers were part of the same 2014 legislation, but less than a handful of VA officials have actually been fired. The VA refuses to use this and other accountability tools, even against officials who defrauded the department of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unsurprisingly, top VA officials and their Beltway enablers are opposed to stronger accountability legislation, which remains stalled in the Senate. Perhaps worst of all, the whistleblowers who exposed the scandal in the first place continue to be marginalized, targeted, and even spied on, as the Washington Examiner reported in January this year.

There is no denying the sad reality that the VA is no more functional today than it was in 2014. This tragic stasis comes despite the fact that the VA has the second-largest budget in the federal government ($160-plus billion) and a workforce twice the size of the Marine Corps (340,000-plus employees). The VA’s problems have nothing to do with funding and very little to do with staffing.

#share#So, why has nothing changed? With the problem well identified, with both Democrats and Republicans professing to want to fix the VA, and with veterans overwhelmingly supportive of serious reforms, how have attempts to change the VA’s “corrosive culture” gone nowhere?

The answer will not surprise you: Entrenched ideologies, self-interested politicians, and special interests block the path to VA reform. Until politicians are forced to admit that the VA’s health-care model has failed, and until special interests are forcefully confronted, very little is going to change. So, as a veterans advocate who has been involved in the fight to fix the VA for years, allow me to speak bluntly.

Entrenched ideologies, self-interested politicians, and special interests block the path to VA reform.

The reason the VA health-care model doesn’t work is the VA bureaucracy itself. VA health care is top-down, single-payer, government-run health care. Imagine getting your health care at the post office or the DMV — welcome to health care for veterans. Every day, veterans attempt to navigate a massive government network of hospitals and clinics that are run like a Washington bureaucracy. It’s socialized medicine at its worst. They’re told the next billion dollars in funding will fix it, but it never does. Yet, for ideologically entrenched leftists, this type of health care is supposed to be a model for all Americans. These leftists don’t dare try to overhaul the VA, because then they would be effectively admitting defeat on government-run health care. They refuse to let the facts get in the way of their ideology — and veterans suffer as a result.

Conservative reformers see health care very differently. We believe choices, competition, accountability, and transparency are good for consumers — and, in this case, for those who deserve the best health care and service our country has to offer. Yet, when reforms are advanced in thoughtful and sensible ways that would restructure the tangled bureaucracy and put vets in control of their own health care, VA officials, unions, and apologists go insane. They accuse reformers of wanting to privatize, dismantle, and defund the VA (and, of course, it’s always a “Koch-Fueled Plot to Destroy the VA,” as a recent Mother Jones headline put it). Typical left-wing tactics: no new policy ideas, only new personal attacks.

RELATED: It’s Time to Get Rid of the VA

However, blame only starts with the VA and its ideological allies. The VA’s congressional committees, in order to keep their bipartisan veneer and find lowest-common-denominator consensus, avoid tough, necessary reforms and instead just throw more money at the problem. Committee staff quietly quash ambitious plans in favor of bills that look tough, but are not. And of course government unions — like the American Federation of Government Employees — mobilize to attack reformers. Union jobs and dues, not quality services for veterans, are their lodestar.

But the most troubling — and effective — opponents of reform are veterans’ service organizations. Almost all the D.C.-based veterans’ groups (excepting my former organization, Concerned Veterans for America) reflexively defend the status quo — kissing the rings of VA officials, cutting cozy congressional deals behind the scenes, and falling over themselves for the next White House invitation. Vets’ groups should be the VA’s watchdogs, but instead they’re self-interested lapdogs. None have introduced any bold or new ideas since the scandal started, and all have mastered the art of blocking meaningful reforms. Until D.C.-based veterans’ groups, who wield a lot of power with individual congressmen and senators, start to represent their members, who do want meaningful reform, such reform is extremely tough.

Thankfully, both a forthcoming VA commission report, and soon-to-be-introduced legislation, will chart a course for real, systemic VA reform. Both will represent yet another stand-up-and-be-counted moment for so-called veterans advocates. The report, from the Commission on Care, is already being mischaracterized and attacked by the usual suspects — including, you guessed it, veterans’ groups. Reform legislation will also be disingenuously attacked. But for those of us who know how broken the VA is — and aren’t interested in being liked by the VA or invited to the White House Christmas party — we will continue to fight like hell to give veterans the top-notch service they have earned.

— Pete Hegseth is a Fox News contributor, an Army veteran, and author of the forthcoming book In the Arena: Good Citizens, a Great Republic, and How One Speech Can Reinvigorate America

 

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