Two years ago, the news that corruption at the Veterans Administration had resulting in veterans dying without care in order to bolster VA executive bonuses outraged the nation. For the first and only time in his administration, Barack Obama demanded the resignation of a Cabinet official, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, and pledged to reform the VA. Congress demanded action, and everyone lamented that Americans who sacrificed so much for their nation had been exploited, ignored, and left to die by a bureaucracy more concerned about self-promotion than their care.
What’s changed since the scandal broke? Pete Hegseth, former head of Concerned Veterans for America and now a Fox News and NRO contributor, says reform has also been put on a wait list:
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. 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.
Just last month, as Pete points out, we found out that the manipulation ran deeper and broader than the Obama administration admitted. It took a Freedom of Information Act demand from USA Today to find it out, too:
Employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs who blew the whistle on the manipulation of scheduling data to falsely reflect shorter wait times are blasting investigations of their complaints, saying they were not thorough enough and the practice is still continuing in some VA facilities.
“My office has just been crazy busy with providers, schedulers, coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, we’re still manipulating, and the intimidation is still active,’ ” said Germaine Clarno, a social worker and union representative at a suburban Chicago VA Medical Center.
“I can promise you that it is still going on at facilities across this country,” said Shea Wilkes, co-director with Clarno of a group of more than 40 whistleblowers from VA medical facilities in more than a dozen states.
The VA’s inspector general last week began releasing the findings of 77 wait-time investigations following a Freedom of Information request from USA TODAY. In the 38 cases released so far, investigators found improper scheduling in 21 of them.
Why hasn’t real reform happened yet? The VA and “its ideological allies” are to blame, but Pete also blames a Congress that talks big but largely refuses to act, and veterans groups that are more concerned with politics than care:
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.
This actually makes the case for the CV4A reform proposal even better than the scandal itself. The reason that these factors continue to impede progress is because many veterans are stuck within a single-payer system and cannot access other care without bankrupting their families. The only way to end this kind of corruption is to eliminate the single-payer model, and use premium support for veterans to allow them real choice for routine care. The VA could then focus on its strengths — service-related illness and injuries — and the incentives for corruption would at least be greatly reduced. That, however, would mean surrendering power over the lives of veterans, and that’s antithetical to the bureaucratic culture permeating the VA and Washington in general.
Sadly, nothing in this video has changed since its publication in February 2015.
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