We often hear that a nation’s humanity should be judged on how it treats its poor, elderly, youth or animals. In reality, our humanity is only as strong as our individual commitment to the whole of humankind.
Politics aside, the soul of a government is the people on the outside of the apparatus, not the bureaucrats or elected representatives who are consumed by regurgitating regulation after regulation and are mired in the very red tape they created. That is not to say these people are uncaring, but as time passes their empathy for the very people they swore to serve all too often fades. The blatant mistreatment of our veterans is just another example of this.
I am sure that most VA officials or employees wake up in the morning with good intentions to do right by our veterans. The motivations should be simple, to care for the very people who served their nation by putting themselves in harm’s way. Nevertheless, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. That is what we have with the current VA model, a living hell. Worse still, President Obama and his administration have shown little empathy for our heroes. As I have said before, this mess was long in the making, and Obama does not own this national shame alone. We as a nation share in this crisis, and we as a people must be responsible for a government that has failed time and again to honor our promises to those who served on our behalf. We, as a people, must demand results. Sadly, I fear those cries have fallen on deaf ears with Obama.
The recent release of the Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s report is only the tip of the iceberg. What is in this IG report is shocking enough. However, many of us fear the worst is yet to come.
What started with one VA facility in Phoenix spread to 26 prior to Memorial Day and has now grown to 42 VA facilities. Worse still was that this was not a result of poor funding, just poor management and quite possibly criminal behavior. The Veterans Affairs budget is roughly $164 billion. However, only 39 percent goes to actual health care of our veterans. As recently as 2011, roughly 80 percent of the Veterans Health Administration’s nearly 22,500 workers received about $150 million in performance pay. Looking at the VA from the outside, one has to wonder what exactly did these more than 20,000 employees do to merit such bonuses. Is it now the practice of our government to reward incompetence? Let us take inventory of what we consider warranted merit pay.
Investigators have confirmed 1,700 veterans were placed on an unofficial waiting list for primary care appointments at the VA hospital in Phoenix. Investigators are expected to spend the next few months conducting a detailed review of medical records and autopsy results to determine if the link between the unofficial wait lists and the untimely deaths of at least 40 honored veterans are connected. These tragic facts raise the question of just how many more may have been forgotten or lost in the system.
The IG report also describes a department with a wide culture of complacency, lacking not only in accountability, but at times creating a hostile environment for low-level VA employees seeking to provide proper care. We have learned the official list showed veterans waited 24 days for their first primary care appointment in Phoenix. It was this list for which VA bureaucrats received a bonus for a “job well done.” We now know that a more complete list, which was kept secret, showed the average waiting time was 115 days.
Prior to submitting this article, we learned that Veterans Administration Secretary Eric Shinseki has offered his resignation. Shinseki is an American hero and served his country with honor. Sadly he had lost the confidence of the veterans, but I fear he will be held up as the scapegoat for a failed system that is the responsibility of thousands of people. Shinseki’s resignation solves nothing, but some will hide behind it as the solution to an ongoing problem. Shinseki’s departure should be the beginning of the road to redemption in this matter.
As a nation we must commit ourselves to action:
1. Honor our promise to our veterans and reform a system that has failed them. That means getting them immediate medical care.
2. Hold those responsible accountable. Not just with firings and resignations, but with criminal charges. This will be of little consequence to the families that have suffered, but justice demands this.
3. Apologize to our veterans. As a nation we need to atone for our failure. As our president, Obama needs to call a joint session of Congress and apologize before the American people. Own up to the failure and commit to a simple plan of action as drawn up by veterans. They deserve a say in the solution.
4. President Obama must visit ground zero of this crisis, the VA facility in Arizona. In times of national crisis, such as natural disasters and tragedies, we have grown accustomed to seeing our president appear before the country from the epicenter of our pain. Mr. Obama, what are you waiting for?
History will judge America for its failures more than its successes. That is the harsh reality. Years from now when we look back, how will we judge ourselves regarding this matter? I hope it is with pride that we took the steps to honor our veterans.