Care For Veterans Is Shameful

I thought there would never be a time when I would say the following, but I am truly ashamed of my country.

I know some people will take offense with this, regardless of the circumstances that led me here. I assure you my heart is heavy with the realization that as a nation we have failed to uphold our commitment to our veterans, again. We not only dishonored their service, but at times have been cruel in our disregard for their needs and dignity. The dysfunction and malfeasance perpetrated on our selfless soldiers, sailors and airmen is beyond comprehension. Yet, here we stand once again, looking past our failures, without regard to the greater anguish we are responsible for. Is it any wonder 22 veterans a day commit suicide? We own that as a nation and cannot just wash the blood off our hands.

Nearly two years after the first reports concerning the Department of Veterans Affairs surfaced regarding falsified records, lack of quality care and rampant mismanagement the situation has only grown worse. A recent Government Accountability Office review of appointment wait times and veteran care reveals our veterans are still suffering at the hands of an uncaring bureaucracy.

In the GAO report, we learned patients new to VA health care wait three to eight weeks for medical appointments. This was contradicted by VA Secretary Bob McDonald when he stated 97 percent of VA appointments are completed within 30 days, with an average wait time of three to six days. How could the alphabet agencies be so far off? Simple, the VA and the GAO measure wait times differently. Further polluting the situation, VA employees receive bonuses based on wait time averages. Gee, what could go wrong?

The VA starts counting from the day a scheduler returns a veteran’s call or request for an appointment, when they should be counting from the day a veteran calls to request the appointment. It does not matter how long a veteran’s request goes unanswered, languishing in a “to call” queue. The clock starts when the VA is ready, not when the veteran is in need of care. Imagine if you called your doctor for an appointment and they sat on your request. Then several weeks later they called back and said they could see you tomorrow. The wait time is recorded as one day, when it was several weeks.

The VA set up a structure that not only assures bonuses are paid, but that crony bureaucrats would misuse and manipulate the system to steal from taxpayers and abuse our veterans in need of care, which is exactly what happens. A newly released Office of the Inspector General report indicates at least 40 VA facilities falsified wait times, including Vermont and New Hampshire. In New Hampshire, investigators found it was a “routine and well-known” practice for schedulers to effectively zero out wait times. The investigators also found cardiology clinic staffers had canceled referrals, and asked that they be re-entered within the 14 days. Sadly, some at the VA set aside all compassion so they could get a bonus.

The GAO also reported veterans could not see a primary care doctor at all because VA staff did not handle the appointments correctly. The ability for a veteran to seek medical assistance outside the VA was supposed to be guaranteed through the Veterans Choose Program, implemented after the 2014 VA scandal was discovered. The Veterans Choose Program has been a confusing mess, thanks to bureaucrats more concerned about saving their jobs than helping vets.

Another recent report by the OIG discovered the VA has been systematically shredding documents related to veterans’ claims, some potentially affecting their benefits. OIG investigators discovered six of the 10 regional offices they visited were improperly, and possibly illegally, destroying documents that affected veterans’ benefits directly.

Manipulating wait times and destroying veterans’ claims are just the tip of an iceberg in plain view, yet ignored. A new non-partisan review by the National Veterans Legal Services Program, Swords to Plowshares, and Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic revealed the VA has wrongfully been denying services to post-9/11 veterans. Their study states roughly 125,000 post-9/11 veterans were affected. Some veterans are missing out on critical benefits such as health care and housing assistance for the homeless and disability services. The report concluded the VA’s own rules are in violation of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights.

There is a dire human toll because of our failure to act. I could fill both sides of this entire page with the names of the victims who have suffered at the hands of the VA.  A San Diego veteran attempted to kill himself after he had crucial appointments canceled. OIG learned the San Diego VA appointment clerks were instructed to zero out wait times in the scheduling database, causing additional stress to the suicidal veteran. The clerks were permitted to retire, and the pressuring supervisor allowed to resign.

As if the bureaucratic nightmare were not enough, we learned just this week from whistle-blower Germaine Clarno that a vermin infestation has overrun the kitchen of the Chicago VA hospital. Clarno stated “The workers try to brush the cockroaches off the counters, but the bugs get in the food.” These brave men and women, who served their country, are being served cockroaches in their meals. Let that sink in for a moment, and then tell me how we all should not be ashamed.

The incompetence and criminal behavior by some at the VA has consequences, but our inaction as a nation is a blight on us all. Our fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters deserve better. They served and protected us. It is our turn to honor them.

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