America must stop failing its veterans

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: America has made promises to its military veterans, but those promises have not been kept

It is past time that answers are given on how American veterans are being treated at Veterans Affairs medical facilities.

On Thursday, a rare case of bipartisanship was demonstrated on Capitol Hill as both Republicans and Democrats leveled sharp criticism at Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki over delays in health care to U.S. military veterans. While many of the allegations have been heard before Shinseki took the position, he’s had more than five years to drill down, find the problems and correct them.

There are strong indications that hasn’t been done, with one major veterans’ group, the American Legion, calling for his ouster because of it. Shinseki was still at the helm when the week ended, but his undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, resigned Friday. That did little to appease critics, who noted that Petzel just moved up his retirement, which was planned for the end of the year.

Of particular concern at Thursday’s hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee were accusations that the Phoenix, Ariz., VA office had been cooking the books in regard to how quickly patients were being seen. While records from the office showed that veterans were being seen within 14 days, patients instead have been facing months-long wait times. Included among those waiting for medical care were 40 patients who died. Doctors complained VA officials ordered them to hold patients’ names on a secret list until an appointment time opened up on the facility’s “official” list, which showed everything in compliance with VA standards.

Senators were not pleased with Shinseki’s wait-and-see approach. Three senior VA officials in Phoenix have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the agency’s inspector general. More than one lawmaker was skeptical that an in-house probe would accomplish much of anything, with at least one senator suggesting the FBI should be called in to investigate.

While this shouldn’t matter, the level of care our American veterans are getting may finally get addressed because of one thing — the midterm elections this fall. With Republicans and Democrats locking horns over Senate control, political fallout from the mistreatment of men and women who put their lives on the line for our nation is something neither party nor the White House wants to be saddled with.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, questioned Shineski about a memo from April 2010 that listed unacceptable scheduling practices — a secret long-term waiting list certainly qualifies for that — and asserted that such practices would not be tolerated.

“It would seem to me like there should have been a systematic, in writing, practice where the chain of command would see to it that was not tolerated, as the memo said, and there was accountability to be had, including the loss of a job,” Isakson said.

Isakson noted additional reports of misconduct, including a July 2011 VA Inspector General report substantiating problems with electronic waiting lists for mental health appointments in Atlanta and a GAO report from December 2012 that stated VA’s scheduling data was, at best, “unreliable” and “unevenly implemented” across the system. All these instances show VA officials knew or should have known there were problems.

And U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Albany, ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies, said he was outraged about the allegations against the Department of Veterans Affairs that contend administrative cost-cutting had led to denials in service to veterans. He said that even in bad economic times, the VA has seen “healthy” funding increases.

“Frankly,” Bishop said, “I do not know who, or what, is at fault for these grave allegations, however, I believe that it is a duty of Congress to ensure that no one betrays the sacred trust owed to our veterans.”

If the VA probe shows personnel are “guilty of systemic negligence and oversight malfeasance,” he said he expects “strong and swift action to rectify the problem. … (I)mmediate steps must be taken to assure that no veteran is currently being victimized by any such policy of denial of appropriate diagnostic tests nor delays in scheduling of appointments.”

That is what it should boil down to, and it should have been the focus long before now. Our men and women in military service have made sacrifices to ensure our nation’s safety, and many of them have physical and emotional scars from their respective ordeals. As a nation, we have made commitments to them. At least 40 have died because people — whether elected or appointed — who Americans placed in charge of ensuring those promises were kept didn’t do their jobs. Our men and women didn’t fail us. We cannot continue to fail them.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board