At first it looked like there might be some serious problems at the VA hospital in Phoenix, but it seemed to be an isolated problem and it was being looked into and would be put right in due course, etc. etc. Not to worry.
But then, little by little, more information kept coming out and things kept looking worse and worse. There were secret waiting lists designed to conceal the fact that thousands of veterans had been waiting for months to get medical care. Schedulers were being pressured by bosses to cook the books and make it look like patients were being seen within 14 days, when that wasn’t even close to true. Worse, some managers even got bonuses for perpetrating that fraud.
In fact, after an emergency audit of hundreds of VA hospitals and clinics around the country, we learned that more than 57,000 veterans had been waiting 90 days or longer for their first — first! — medical appointments, and that another 64,000 never got appointments at all. Then it emerged that at least 40 patients of the Phoenix VA hospital had died as a result of delayed care.
Yes, the VA health system has a big — no, huge — job to do. We’re talking about 85 million appointments per year (try to imagine that!) because there are still vets from World War II and Korea in the system, and the Vietnam vets are now old men as well, and let’s not forget Desert Storm, and then there are all the troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of them for tour after tour — and their needs are often critical.
I’m sure Gen. Eric Shinseki, the distinguished former soldier who was running the Department of Veterans Affairs, is an honorable man, but he’s clearly no administrator because he doesn’t seem to have known about any of this stuff, even after five years on the job. Maybe he was stonewalled by senior staff (“Is everything OK?” “Everything’s fine, General.”) but if that’s how isolated he was from reality, it’s better that he resigned.
Shinseki’s departure, though, doesn’t in itself solve anything. This is not just “an organizational leadership failure,” as the internal report said, nor simply a serious “systemic” problem. Even “a national disgrace,” as House Speaker John Boehner has called it, barely covers the subject.
We also learned this year about certain problems at the West Haven VA hospital, involving cleaning procedures and the control of infectious diseases. These issues do seem to be local, and members of our congressional delegation, including 3rd District Democrat Rosa DeLauro, of New Haven, have assured us that the situation is well in hand. But that was before the true scope of the national waiting-list problem had been revealed, so our representatives and senators need to remain vigilant, lest West Haven join the long list of troubled VA treatment locations where vets have had to endure outrageous and intolerable wait times.
Until recently, the VA health system had often been held up as an example of a government program that works, and there are vets out there who do say they’re happy with the treatment they receive. But there are also too many who have fallen through the cracks.
We need to do our best to catch them, even if that means redesigning the VA system, even if that means creating some new Medicare-like structure that will let the vets go to hospitals and doctors outside the VA system.
All of these guys and gals took the oath and put on the uniform. They deserve a lot better medical care than many of them are getting right now.
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.