While it is just a tragic anecdote, the latest story surrounding the chronic and too often fatal inefficiency of Veterans Affairs hospitals is illustrative of a much larger problem.
“A veteran who collapsed in an Albuquerque Veteran Affairs hospital cafeteria, 500 yards from the emergency room, died after waiting 30 minutes for an ambulance,” the Associated Press reported on Thursday. “Officials at the hospital Thursday confirmed it took a half an hour for the ambulance to be dispatched and take the man from one building to the other, which is about a five minute walk.”
VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown defended the VA’s conduct in this case, telling reporters that the staff “followed policy in calling 911 when the man collapsed on Monday.” She added, however, that this policy is now under review.
It is unclear why the ambulance took so long to reach this veteran in need, and blaming the VA system in this instance may be entirely unfair. That said, it is also just another example that serves to reinforce the narrative that the VA system is hopelessly broken.
And the impression that the VA system is broken is anything but unfair.
“The chief medical inspector for the Department of Veterans Affairs has retired, following a report that his office downplayed whistleblower complaints outlining serious problems at VA facilities across the country, acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said Wednesday,” another Associated Press report published Wednesday read. “Dr. John R. Pierce had served as medical inspector since 2004 and was deputy medical inspector for two years before that.”
Pierce is one of a half-dozen high-ranking officials who have resigned or retired from the VA following a national outcry over reports of patient deaths, widespread treatment delays and falsified records at VA facilities nationwide. The outcry led to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation in late May. Since then, several other officials have resigned, including the agency’s top health official and the man who replaced him as acting undersecretary for health. A third man who had been nominated by Obama for the top health job withdrew.
Obama’s new nominee to head the VA, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald has his hands full. Those who are hoping that McDonald will turn the VA around and run this Leviathan federal agency like a business will be sorely disappointed. Federal bureaucracies are impervious to the market forces which make businesses run like businesses.
In late June, the CNN reporter who originally broke the story surrounding falsified waiting lists at the VA, Drew Griffin, expressed his doubts that the VA can fix itself. “I don’t know how you fix this. I really don’t know, if I was going to give advice, where you would give it, other than I would blanketly throw out every senior manager in the VA,” he said.
That process seems to be underway, though it remains to be seen if that will be enough.