There are so many faults in the path that has led to the current disgraceful state of the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers across the country that Congress is wise to order some immediate reforms rather than get bogged down in trading blame for how our nation came to such a sorry pass.
Tuesday, the House of Representative passed, 421-0, a bill that would make it possible for veterans who need medical care and have been waiting for an appointment or who live more than 40 miles from a VA center to seek care at a local doctor, on the VA’s dime.
The VA will have many more dimes, under this bill, because the agency will save $400 million by canceling an employee bonus program that has apparently done little to actually improve service to ailing veterans. (Are you listening, Utah Transit Authority?)
And the Senate is moving at what is, for it, warp speed to pass a similar reform bill put together by far-left Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and pretty-far-right Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Assuming that all this energy doesn’t dissipate, in the face of some other juicy scandal we haven’t heard of yet, these reforms could do a lot to move the reported 57,000 veterans off of an indefensible waiting list which has, according to inspector general reports, seen more than a few veterans die while waiting for their appointments to come up.
Things are so bad that Salt Lake City’s VA Center has been considered one of the better examples of care — so good that the agency borrowed our director to clean up the mess in Phoenix — yet it was ninth on the list of centers with the longest waiting times for new patients, at 73 days.
Another reason why Congress would be smart to just fix the problem rather than point fingers is that it is hard to see any good guys — other than a couple of VA whistle-blowers — in the entire affair.
First, the George W. Bush administration started two wars with no plan on how to pay for them, or for the care of those who had borne the battle. President Obama promised to fix all that but, unable to get Congress to cough up a fraction of the needed funding, dropped the ball. That left local medical centers in the lurch and, in some cases, allowed individual administrators to rationalize creating false waiting lists and other stats that hid the depth of the problem.
In the long run, VA Medical Centers need both more money and a reduced case load. Shifting more vets to private care, Medicare, and fully expanding Medicaid as called for in the Affordable Care Act would all help in that regard.
Then the real heroes at the VA could concentrate on the most serious service-related matters, such as post-traumatic stress, prosthetics and other matters that small-town docs just don’t have all that much experience with.
Politicians who think government can’t do anything right, and those who think government should do just about everything, need to set aside those arguments. Because providing proper health care for our veterans is one thing our government must not only do, but do well.
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