Great news: Obama admin to address VA shortcomings with ... a study committee

Ten months ago, the wait-list scandal at the already plagued Veterans Administration hospitals broke out into the open. By the end of May 2014, longtime VA Secretary Eric Shinseki got forced out, resigning after calls for his head came from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Shinseki is the only Cabinet official to have experienced that kind of accountability after failure, and one month later Barack Obama picked Bob McDonald to right the VA ship.  In the intervening eight-plus months, McDonald has only fired one employee over the wait-list scandal, despite new authority from Congress to clear out the deadwood and corruptocrats.

Now, however, the Obama administration says they’re getting serious about this scandal. McDonald announced this morning that the VA will boldly … er … form a study committee to “improve services”:

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald is announcing the creation of a new advisory committee with leaders from the private sector, non-profits and the government that will focus on improving the VA’s service to veterans, according to a White House official.

McDonald will make the announcement during the president’s visit to the Phoenix VA Friday.

The new committee is tasked with advising the VA on how it can improve its customer service and improve patient outcomes for veterans, and “set the course for longer-term excellence and reform,” the official said in a statement.

A study committee, eh? Well, I suppose veterans are used to waiting for VA action by now.

Yesterday, McDonald spoke with KPHO in Phoenix to declare that the VA needs to make the environment safe for whistleblowers, which … should have already been made clear almost a year ago. McDonald then says he’s in favor of choice for veterans in their care but needs more time to study it and discuss it with Congress, another issue that should be much farther along in its development — especially when one considers his answer to a pointed KPHO question. Would McDonald send his loved one for care at the Phoenix VA hospital? Watch the VA Secretary stumble over this until Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson rides to his rescue:

McDonald insists that he’s a big proponent of veteran choice, but Pete Hegseth begs to differ. The CEO of Concerned Veterans for America responds to the VA’s dithering on choice in an essay at the Wall Street Journal that rips McDonald and Obama for “breaking another promise to veterans”:

Particularly promising was the new Veterans Choice Program. It was designed to give veterans who lack timely or convenient access to VA health care the ability to seek compensated care from a private provider. Since November, 8.6 million Veterans Choice cards have been mailed out, but according to the VA only 27,000 veterans have made appointments for private medical care using the cards.

The VA fails to mention that it missed several deadlines for mailing the cards and issued confusing and overly stringent criteria for using them. Cardholders must call a toll-free number and follow prompts before speaking to a representative, which in some cases has taken more than an hour. To qualify, they must verify there is at least a 30-day wait for treatment at a VA medical facility or live at least 40 miles (as the crow flies) from a VA medical facility.

A recent Veterans of Foreign Wars survey on the Veterans Choice Program found that “80 percent of the 1,068 survey participants who reported that they either lived 40 miles from a VA medical facility or could not be seen by VA within 30 days said they were not afforded the choice to receive non-VA care.” Almost all the more than 2,500 respondents were interested in getting private care. Those lucky enough to meet the criteria and use the program were generally offered only a narrow set of options.

A generous interpretation is that the VA is having difficulty standing up a new program. A less generous interpretation is that the VA bureaucracy is intentionally erecting barriers to protect its monopoly on veterans’ health care. The recent statements and actions of VA leaders lend credence to this more cynical, but also more realistic, interpretation.

The problem with this version of “choice” is that it still relies on the VA’s self-evaluation of its responsiveness. It incentivizes more wait-list fraud; in fact, given the money that would flow out of the VA to private providers, it makes the incentives to hide long wait times even more powerful. As soon as bonuses get missed because poor service validates these “choice cards,” the executives will demand that wait list times improve while choking off resources needed to accomplish the goal. How does the VA and Obama administration imagine the wait-list fraud occurred in the first place?

Besides, the requirement that veterans apply for the freedom to choose a provider perverts the entire idea of choice. These men and women served their countries honorably, many in combat. Why should they have to ask permission from a bureaucrat to get timely medical attention from the provider of their choice? Forcing them to beg for that latitude is shameful, not to mention a monumental waste of time and another layer of bureaucracy to an organization already choking on its red tape.

At CPAC last month, Pete and I discussed a plan from CV4A that addresses the issue of reform through competitive pressure by allowing veterans real choice.  As I noted at the time, CV4A had presented it two days earlier at their policy summit, with speakers such as Sens. Marco Rubio and John McCain, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, and House VA chair Rep. Jeff Miller all endorsing its approach. Gingrich called it “the single most important reform document the VA has ever seen.” Maybe McDonald and Obama should take a look at it too, rather than form another study committee for another couple of years to offer useless tweaks to the single-payer system in place now.

Update: I missed this from CV4A and Pete, but Daniel Halper has it — and it’s well worth watching:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPY8LpSE4IM