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Veterans' welfare should be top priority

ALBANY HERALD EDITORIAL: Getting military veterans the care they need and deserve is the most critical issue

The talk is ratcheting up on issues with the delivery of medical services to U.S. military veterans, but what is needed is swift corrective action. Lives are at stake.

While the VA budget has seen increases in its budget even in lean times, whether those have been enough to cover the costs of serving Americans who have served in war, including more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, is debatable. There has been grumbling over the years, but the revelation that a Phoenix, Ariz., VA office was cooking its books like a numbers man hiding from the IRS — records for public consumption that blatantly lied about how quickly veterans were being cared for — has finally brought the issue to a head, particularly the assertion that dozens of veterans died while waiting long months to receive medical care.

What we’re hearing now is a lot of pledges to investigate and an increasing chorus for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down or be fired.

“I hope the president will exhibit the leadership that’s necessary to call on every element of the government from the Inspector General to the Justice Department to the VA itself to get to the bottom of what’s gone wrong because it’s intolerable, it’s unacceptable and it’s wrong,” U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, said Thursday on the Senate floor.

“Here on the doorstep of a holiday where we celebrate those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom, there are veterans losing their lives because of our inability to serve them in VA hospitals,” Isakson said. “I hope the president will exhibit that leadership, I hope we get to the bottom of it. As one member of the Veterans’ Committee, I pledge my commitment to get to the bottom of it. Our veterans deserve no less.”

President Barack Obama on Wednesday had promised to do just that.

“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,” Obama said after meeting at the White House with Shinseki and Rob Nabors, Obama’s aide who is reviewing the allegations about the Phoenix VA office. “… “When I hear allegations of misconduct, any misconduct, whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books, I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an America.”

He also indicated that if the allegations are substantiated, Shinseki will voluntarily leave his post.

While that resignation might be deserved and may satisfy some critics, the issue goes deeper than who is sitting atop the VA food chain. The issue that must be explored both thoroughly and quickly is whether America’s veterans are getting quality care with the shortest waiting times possible. That some veterans may have died while waiting for appointments to open up is unforgivable.

The administration should not only investigate what has happened, it needs to quickly get a handle on what is happening now. If the VA is understaffed or otherwise unable to provide quality medical care to our veterans, then the government officials should move some of the patients to the private sector, at least until they are certain that America can uphold its promises to our military veterans. This is something that should be a top priority for the administration and Congress.

On Monday, we will honor those who served their nation and died in that service. We do no honor by standing aside and allowing those who have served and survived to come home and die when those deaths could be prevented by keeping our word to the men and women who kept theirs to us.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board