The Disgrace at the VA

United States veterans have served their country through some of history’s deadliest conflicts: World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our freedom has been secured through their bravery, heroism and willingness to sacrifice their lives for their country.

To those who risked their lives, we owe the right to access the best health care money can buy. But as more revelations of the VA scandal emerge, it turns out our veterans were receiving not the best but some of the worst health care of any group in the U.S.

Forty veterans in Arizona, according to reports, may have died while having to wait weeks to get proper care. In addition to the unacceptable delays, investigators uncovered a culture of deceit throughout the VA system. In order to cover up the huge backlog, some VA hospitals kept two sets of records: one for the government auditor and one to track the true number of veterans waiting for care.

While the latest revelations are shocking, the VA has long been known to be riddled with incompetence. For example, a 2005 report by the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a scathing report of the Dallas VA medical center, finding 80 percent of its performance metrics to be below “satisfactory.” Investigators found that “floors and walls had buildups of grime,” “intravenous pumps were dirty,” and “the medication refrigerator was consistently below the required range.” In 2009, the VA was forced to notify 6,000 patients from a Tennessee facility that they had been infected by contaminated endoscopic equipment. One VA dentist admitted, in 2011, after a number of veterans came down with hepatitis, that he hadn’t changed gloves between patients in 18 years!

Despite all the waste documented at the VA, its budget has continued to skyrocket, tripling since 2000 to $151 billion in 2014. Therefore, the problem with the VA isn’t about lack of funds; it’s about what it has been doing with its money.

It’s about institutionalized corruption and fraud. Since 2005, the VA has known that its staff has been fudging the wait-list numbers, but did little to change the culture of deceit. Indeed, even at its founding the VA system was looting taxpayers and depriving veterans. Charles Forbes, the agency’s first head in the 1920s, took kickbacks from vendors and pocketed money from selling off supplies. Forbes would later spend time in jail for his crooked dealings, but the agency has never rid itself of its culture as a bureaucracy run amok.

Fast forward to 2011, and things hadn’t gotten much better. According to the inspector general, $762,000 of expenditures at a VA conference in Orlando was “unauthorized, unnecessary and/or wasteful.” The VA spent close to $80 million on such questionable conferences in 2011. That’s money that could have gone to hire dozens more doctors.

Our veterans deserve a better, more responsible system than the one they currently have. It has been a colossal mistake to place their medical care under the umbrella of a hopelessly fraudulent government agency. Veterans should be allowed to pick doctors and hospitals of their choice. They should have vouchers that will be accepted at any health-care facility. Our nation’s seniors receive excellent medical care through Medicare, which permits them to receive services through any provider at any hospital. With Medicare, seniors don’t have to wait for the medical tests and care they need.

That doesn’t mean the VA should be dismantled entirely. Its experience in treating battlefield injuries and mental illness is too vital to be lost, but it would hold itself to a higher standard if there was competition for veterans’ health care. The VA, as with any monopoly, doesn’t have to worry about losing customers when there’s no other place for its customers to go.

A good first start at holding the VA accountable has been the resignation of VA secretary and former general Eric Shinseki. But that’s not enough. The entire VA structure of non-accountability — in which administrators feel comfortable “cooking the books” — and of wild spending sprees must come to a quick end. The president has to not only pick someone with good military credentials, but also a leader who sets a tone of duty and honesty throughout the organization.

With Memorial Day having just been observed last week, it would be hypocritical to, on the one hand, claim we remember and honor those who served; yet, on the other, dishonor our commitment to these same veterans when they need health care. Our veterans crossed too many minefields during battle; they shouldn’t have to navigate another one in order to get proper care once they come home.