Friday, May 30, 2014

Scandalous Affairs Veterans Don't Deserve

And, so it begins.

Washington's way of biting the bullet.

Today, Eric Shinseki stepped up and stepped down as secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the first big name to be sacrificed by President Barak Obama's cabinet in the wake of an alarming scandal within the agency's healthcare division.

But nobody expects Shinseki to be the only fall guy in this story.  In fact, the extent to which Shinseki may have known that wait times at VA hospitals were being cooked is debatable.  But in the end, how much does it really matter?

That Shinseki's culpability probably doesn't matter stems from the reality that ultimately, he couldn't do anything about it anyway, even if he knew.  The reason wait times were being covered up almost certainly involved a lack of funds.  Not enough money to hire enough doctors, nurses, and medical technicians to adequately service the healthcare needs of our veterans.  That, despite the VA being the second-largest agency in our government, with 300,000 employees and a $140 billion budget.  The only agency larger than the VA is our Department of Defense, from which veterans, naturally, matriculate.

When President George W. Bush decided to fight two global wars simultaneously, a lot of money was spent on front line action in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Meanwhile, 2.3 million Americans have returned home after serving in those two theaters of operation, and nearly three-quarters of a million of them have enrolled in VA-provided healthcare programs.  And about 1,200 of them are amputees.

By way of comparison, over 16 million Americans fought in World War II, and 2.7 million in Vietnam.  Perhaps it could be argued that as the "Greatest Generation," as WWII vets have been called, continues to pass away at high rates as they age into the upper 80's, their permanent matriculation out of the VA system should free up budgetary dollars for new veterans returning from the Middle East.  That replacement effect is happening to a certain degree, but the wounds with which today's veterans are returning from today's war zones are more costly to fix than ever before.  Whereas WWII soldiers more easily died from their wounds, due to inferior lifesaving techniques and armament technology, today's soldiers more easily survive after an attack, but with all of the physical injuries that would have killed soldiers in former wars.

Amputation of limbs is one thing, but there's also the expense of re-attaching salvageable limbs, treating concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder, blindness, hearing loss, and fierce burns.  Besides, America currently has 22 million other veterans from former eras, since one doesn't need to have served in a war zone to have been employed to protect our country.

And the VA doesn't just run hospitals.  It tries to keep veterans from becoming homeless, it runs jobs programs for veterans, it helps pay for veterans to get college degrees, it provides mortgage assistance, and it buries our veterans and their spouses in sprawling national cemeteries across the country.  Considering all it's responsible for, the VA could be its own country, larger than Jamaica, Norway, Sweden, and Ireland combined.

Perhaps Shinseki wasn't the right person to administrate all of that responsibility, and now that the department is in crisis mode, it could have been just as unfair to force him to continue in his role.  After all, what's the likelihood that he is responsible for the deceit and delays of which VA hospital paper-pushers have been accused?  It's possible that cabinet-level decisions intentionally withheld resources from hospitals, and it's likely that the mid-level administrators who seem to be mostly to blame for this scandal were more eager to cook the books than stage their own protest over being unrealistically tasked with objectives they couldn't possibly fund on their budgets.

Which is where, if you boil this whole thing down, we need to be.  Has funding been adequate for the VA?  Not politically adequate, but adequate in terms of what the American public expects our retired servicemembers to receive in their healthcare?

After all, these veterans are the same people we hired to defend us, and risk their lives, their welfare, and their future health for our own comforts and safety.  Sure, soldiers get a paycheck, and yes, for many of them, it's the best job for which they could have ever hoped to qualify.  But does that negate our obligation to them?

Maybe it sounds to provincial and esoteric to speak of veterans in such patriotic language, but if I'd gone out to Afghanistan or Iraq, and gotten an arm blown off, or an ear burned off, I don't think it'd have been unreasonable of me to expect a continuity of healthcare once I left a field hospital and was discharged.  After all, soldiers are trained to fight, to kill, and to die.  It's not like they're being hired on at a stapler factor in Des Moines, and the worst injury their workers' compensation provider could expect would be tiny puncture wounds to the fingers.

Or are most of our veterans hypochondriacs, gaming the VA healthcare system with hoax symptoms and imaginary broken legs?  We've all heard the stories of con-artists in the military; are our politicians simply afraid of branding veterans who can't obtain private healthcare as sheisters?  And are Washington's bureaucrats simply tolerating the VA as the price we pay for the pretense of pacifying people trained in weaponry? 

Sometimes that seems to be their attitude.
Instead of starting with Shinseki, the President and Congress should have asked for a thorough review of the way the Department has been allocating and spending its financial resources.  Chances are, such a review wouldn't produce much vital information, since politicians don't really want the American people to know that their second-biggest governmental agency can't get the funding it needs.  But a review is what the American public should still expect, although it's doubtful many Americans are willing to pay more in taxes if doing so would propel the VA's funding to where it needs to be.

Like a lot of things in Washington, it's about money.  After all, if you look at all of the problems free-market hospitals in the civilian world are having with making ends meet, why should we be surprised that government-run hospitals are having financial problems? 

Unfortunately, in the VA's case, it's not even that budgets don't provide the necessary funds, but that people who should have known better, who should have been guided by better morality than they apparently were, and who should have been in positions of advocacy to bring whatever budgeting shortfalls they were experiencing to the appropriate leadership - even the president, if need be, were instead more content to run two sets of books so they could produce the numbers VA leaders wanted.  And win their promotions and bonuses.

Shinseki is not a career bureaucrat.  He's a military man, a veteran himself.  He held the job from which he resigned today for a paltry five years,  hardly long enough to ferret out the type of moral corruption that apparently is eroding the VA.  What is sad about his departure is that the people who should be leaving don't have the political clout to help President Obama portray himself as a resolver of this scandal.  And the people responsible for making sure the VA's budget includes the necessary funding to adequately care for our retired soldiers will be shifting as much blame as they possibly can onto President Obama.  So he'll be needing all the high-profile scapegoats he can find.

Such a vicious circle!

Meanwhile, why is it that America can never bring itself to treating our veterans with a greater measure of respect?  This isn't the first time our VA has been caught red-handed with the blood of former soldiers on its hands.  Remember the Walter Reed scandal?  Or the great benefit claims backlog?  We brag about our military, and we cheer the troops when they march by, but are they really as disposable as our collective treatment of them suggests?

What would happen if, before any president from here on out declares any type of war or military action, the Pentagon says, "whoa, there, Nellie.  What about hospital wait times for our troops who manage to come back home?"

How much longer does our military have to wait for some respect?

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