Focus on veterans’ care, not casting partisan blame
By Kerry Drake
— May 27, 2014
Is it actually possible that a day after America has observed yet another solemn Memorial Day, with politicians waxing eloquently about the need to honor our veterans who gave their lives in battle for their country, Congress is mired in yet another partisan fight about how to properly take care of the wounded veterans who are returning from our last two wars?
The long lines veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are experiencing as they wait to see a doctor at Veterans Administration hospitals is a shameful indictment of how poorly our nation actually treats military veterans. The fact this serves not as a call to fix the problems but as just another opportunity to score political points by blaming the other side only compounds the tragedy.
There is no lack of blame to be assigned for the terrible state of our VA health care system. Fighting two long wars in the Middle East cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and both Republicans and Democrats supported them. Some wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag. Yet when it became clear that a suddenly overloaded VA system didn’t have anywhere near the capacity to treat these new wounded warriors, Congress balked at adequately funding major improvements.
The problem of extended wait times at VA hospitals was identified long ago, and several measures were taken, intended to reduce the time for veterans to have their medical needs evaluated. After some apparent progress was made, the problem still increased to the point that some veterans had to wait more than six months for an appointment. Sadly, many died before they could be treated.
Documents were allegedly falsified at many VA hospitals, including in Cheyenne, to make it appear the agency was meeting its goal of seeing patients within 14 days. It boggles the mind how a problem of this magnitude could exist for so long that the Obama administration claims it learned about it through CNN, and not the whistle-blowers who were coming forward with patients’ horror stories.
Still, there were enough legislative attempts in recent years to increase VA funding to show that some members of Congress were paying attention. Unfortunately, the partisan bickering that has stalled almost all major legislation in the past year derailed these efforts as well.
In February, Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) sponsored a bill to boost VA funding by $21 billion. Part of the increase was directly aimed at reducing hospital wait times for veterans, which may not have uncovered all the ways VA employees attempted to game the system with phony paperwork, but would have gone a long way toward starting to eliminate the current problems. If it had passed Congress, the VA would now be focusing on solutions instead of politicians scurrying to avoid blame and pass the buck.
Sanders’ measure would have done a lot to improve other aspects of VA services. That $21 billion would have also opened VA care to include many more veterans, as well as expand education benefits for survivors and new veterans. More VA hospitals would have been added, along with the necessary staff.
The bill added money to increase programs for veterans who suffered sexual abuse, increased dental care and expanded aid to relatives caring for wounded veterans to include those who served before 9/11. The bill also would have provided fertility or adoption services for wounded troops left unable to conceive.
Those are all improvements Democrats and Republicans should embrace. Yet when it came time to consider the bill, the GOP Senate leadership blocked it. Democrats were able to get only two Republicans – Sens. Dean Heller of Nevada and Jerry Moran of Kansas – to vote with them. Three more were needed to end the opponent’s filibuster.
It’s a good time to ask Wyoming’s pair of U.S. senators, Mike Enzi and John Barrasso, what they objected to in the bill that prevented them from wanting to get wounded veterans seen by doctors more quickly, plus all the other benefits Sanders’ bill contained. If we all agree our nation has a sacred obligation to take care of the men and women who put their lives on the line so the rest of us can live free, $21 billion is a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ve spent to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan and to rebuild those countries.
Republicans charged that Sanders had no way to offset the cost of the VA bill with spending cuts – a condition they mandated for new expenditures only after Obama entered the White House. But Sanders did have a way to pay for his measure, by using the money that the U.S. would have spent in Afghanistan if Obama had not ordered most troops to return home.
The GOP called that a gimmick. But gimmicks are a funny thing – both Congressional Republicans and Democrats use them all the time to get what they want, and if the cause is just, they often work. Even if you label it a gimmick, it spends just like real money, and it would have helped real people; the veterans whom we say we honor in both war and peace.
Sanders has vowed he will return with his bill in some form, and it deserves serious consideration from Enzi and Barrasso, who put out a joint news release last week with Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.). It was headlined, “Wyoming Delegation Concerned VA Putting Veterans’ Lives at Risk.”
I was afraid the delegation might limit itself to casting political blame for the VA scandal, but to its credit, it didn’t do that. However, it also failed to look at the big picture, and beyond trying to find out what low-level bureaucrats were responsible for gaming the system at the Cheyenne VA. These people need to be exposed and punished, but the overarching need at this moment is to find ways for Congress to approve the amount of funding necessary to fix the VA’s unacceptable backlog in patient care.
Last Friday, Sanders blocked an effort by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to quickly pass a bill that would make it much easier for the VA to fire people responsible for the scandal. Rubio charged Sanders was just trying to protect the administration from having to fire its appointees.
But Sanders is truly an independent senator who has never been guilty of trying to protect the Obama administration. Unlike many of his colleagues, he’s focused on trying to find solutions to the VA’s problems without turning it into a witch hunt. He knows there’s enough time to investigate who is responsible for the fraud that occurred and to appropriately punish them. What isn’t needed is a rush to judgment just to embarrass one political party while pretending that the other isn’t also partially responsible for this shameful fiasco.
There is plenty of time to identify criminal misdeeds and bring people to justice. There is not enough time to end these obscenely long wait times to see a VA doctor before more people needlessly die. We’ve run out of that. And turning our attention into another partisan blame game isn’t going to make the problem go away.
— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is a contributor to WyoHistory.org. He also moderates the WyPols blog.
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