The warnings have been there about shortcomings in health care for veterans, and many of those warnings have come from Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
When Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned last week, there was a widespread sentiment that he was a good leader who had to go because the magnitude of the problems at the department had grown too large for him to address effectively. The wait times at VA hospitals had become excessive, according to a report from the inspector general, leading officials at some hospitals to falsify information. There were charges that some veterans had died because they had not received care in a timely fashion.
Sanders has always fashioned himself a champion of the people, and returning veterans, mainly from the working class, have always been a natural constituency for him. He will convene a hearing Thursday to allow his committee to address the VA’s problems, and he is proposing legislation that attacks the issue on a number of fronts.
Sanders points out that the VA anticipates 125,000 new patients in the coming year, with a wide variety of ailments, but President Barack Obama’s budget request for the 2015 fiscal year is up only 3 percent. He says the department has a history of underestimating the number of new patients it will be called upon to serve, and Sanders is requesting an additional $1.6 billion.
Sanders’ bill would do a number of other things.
n It would allow the VA immediately to remove senior executives who perform poorly.
n It would allow veterans unable to get appointments with the VA to go to community health centers, military hospitals or private doctors.
n It would allow the VA to lease 27 new health facilities.
n It would create emergency funding to hire doctors, nurses and others, authorizing scholarships for medical students and forgiveness of college loans for doctors and nurses who go to work for the VA.
The VA has not been gutted by Congress, but the pressure to control spending has prevented the growth in programs needed to address the number and the unique needs of returning veterans. Even Obama, hemmed in by a conservative Congress, has been forced to propose budget levels that do not keep pace with the need.
Conservatives argue that the private sector ought to be adequate to the needs of veterans and that instead of building up the VA bureaucracy, veterans ought to be given vouchers. But the VA exists because veterans have unique medical needs best addressed by a medical system capable of taking on problems such as traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Further, veterans have earned the medical attention that the VA is meant to provide.
Throwing money at the problem of veterans’ medical care may be exactly what is needed. A policy of mindless austerity creates a tendency toward guaranteed mediocrity: Cut as far as you can and when the agency has become adequately mediocre, then you know you have cut enough.
But veterans deserve more than mediocre health care, and government spending on providing it is something to be proud of, not scoffed at. That doesn’t mean encouraging waste. Indeed, the kind of crackdown on malfeasance now underway is what is needed to make sure that veterans get the care they need.
Sanders’ package has elements that conservatives could embrace, such as authority to fire poor leaders and authority to seek care for the time being outside the VA. This moment in the VA’s history ought to be a time for a comprehensive review of the strengths and shortcomings of the agency.
In fact, it is likely that many agencies, stripped of manpower by budget cuts, are teetering at the edge of mediocrity and would benefit from a review of their mission. One thinks of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, whose work Republicans have tried to sabotage.
Now is the time to make government work for our veterans, and Sanders will have a say on the topic Thursday.
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