Veterans Deserve Better Than The Current VA

June 9, 2014 10:00 am

by Charlie · 9 comments

This week’s Courier Herald column:

A couple of weeks ago we observed Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of our country and what we stand for.  Last week, we observed the 70th anniversary of D-Day, perhaps the most pivotal battle involving American forces of the last century that day.  Thousands died during that campaign.  Tens of thousands more lived to continue on and liberate Europe.

Those that came home reinvested their efforts into making our country what it is today.  We also invested in them with programs such as the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration.  Such has been the history to those who have served.

We sent them to places named Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other places around the globe.  For more than a generation those who have gone have done so voluntarily.  But they do so with a promise from us for certain things.  Pay, benefits, medical care during service, a specific retirement plan, combat pay bonuses, and when they leave the service benefits from the Veterans Administration.

For much of the last century we’ve largely kept our promises to veterans.  We generally as a country recognize that we didn’t initially treat our Vietnam era vets well enough. Frankly, we still have some making up to do there.

With the end of the Vietnam War also came the end of the draft – and with that, a lot of the personal closeness that many of us had with the U.S. military.  Fewer of us now have military service in our personal history, or even close family members serving.  This sort of detachment has allowed us to view Veterans and the promises that we’ve made to them to be less and less personal.  As such, the VA, to many, is just another government agency.

To the Veterans who rely on the VA, it’s more than just another bureaucracy that occasionally makes headlines.  It’s all about maintaining any sense of quality of life.  For many, it’s about life itself.

Because of that, the recent headlines about the widespread cover-up over wait times and care our veterans are experiencing cannot be shrugged off as just another political scandal or exercise in government ineptness.   If we allow that to happen, then we are missing the opportunity to not only fix the problem properly, but examine what this scandal says about us as a country.

We’ve known that there were problems at the VA for quite some time.  Recent scandals at the Atlanta and Augusta VA were treated as isolated incidents.  Clearly, the problems are systemic.  As such, a Cabinet level Secretary has resigned.  Resignations don’t usually solve problems.  Rather, they are merely a sign that a problem has been acknowledged.

These problems will not be fixed overnight.  Talk to a veteran that relies on the VA and they’ll tell you about constant turnover with doctors.  They’ll talk about inability to schedule an appointment with a specialist for months if not years – and then likely to have those appointments delayed or deferred multiple times.  They’ll tell you that no one in the system has an incentive for it to work well, or to deliver patients the best care possible.  They’ll tell you the system just doesn’t work.

It’s fair to question whether the VA system is even required to fulfill its mission, or if those who depend on it would be better served with insurance plans that would allow them to find the private medical providers of their choice.  If nothing else, those depending on the VA should be allowed to see private physicians at the VA’s expense if the VA is unable to see and/or treat them in a timely manner.

The problems are broad, and the solutions must be transformative and comprehensive.  This isn’t something we can allow to become yet another log on the fire of partisan sniping.  We must allow the discussion to be bigger than that, because the promises we have made to these folks is bigger than that.  It’s bigger because of the sacrifices they have made – and the ultimate sacrifice that each was willing to make – was to allow the rest of us to live “normal” lives free of these worries.

The solution to this problem will ultimately come from political channels.  As such, regardless of your party or relationship with your Congressman or Senators, you need to let them know that this is not an issue to be demagogued or used as a partisan weapon.  Instead, insist that they roll up their sleeves, work with those on the other side of the aisle and the White House, and get this issue fixed.

How long we let these problems remain will say a lot more about us as a people and the value of our promises than it will about politics or who can score the most points heading into the next election.  The clock is already running.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

gcp June 9, 2014 at 11:07 am

Shinseki’s resignation was correct once we learned the problems were system-wide. Now it’s up to the IG to do a full investigation and refer any potential criminal matters to the attorney general.

A few recommendations: Wrongdoers should be fired and not allowed to “retire.” “Bonuses” should be eliminated in all federal agencies. Those currently in the VA system should be given the option of utilizing the private health care system if they can’t be seen at the VA in a certain number of days.

For future vets, VA eligibility for health care should be restricted to those injuries/illnesses sustained while in service and to retired/disabled vets. No longer should the VA have to care for a vet that served three years and now has lung problems because he smoked for 30 years.

DrGonzo June 9, 2014 at 2:46 pm

“No longer should the VA have to care for a vet that served three years and now has lung problems because he smoked for 30 years.”

Check me if I’m wrong, but that’s how the VA works now, right? If I’m retired/disabled or I sustained injuries in the line of duty I’m eligible. If I served four years in the early 80’s and never even heard a shot fired in anger, I’m not eligible. My dad was 10 years Navy but never served during wartime (he was right after ‘Nam) and never had any service-related injuries. He doesn’t get VA access.

gcp June 9, 2014 at 3:20 pm

Any honorably discharged vet with over two years active service is eligible if you below a certain income level….other factors such as when you served can also make you eligible. I would be curious to see a breakdown as to how many current patients are service-related/retirees compared to those like the smoker I described.

DrGonzo June 9, 2014 at 3:50 pm

“…below a certain income level…” Ah, ok, that’s the caveat. Makes sense.

Ellynn June 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm

Many widows are also eligible. My best friend’s 81 year old mother can fall under the VA system as the widow of a disabled Koren war vet once she reaches a certian level of income. Her father had exceptional care but appointments for anything short of his dialosysis were aways problems to set up, and this was in the late 80’s until is death in 1991.

Angela Palm June 9, 2014 at 11:21 pm

The “VA system” covers a variety of things. Ellyn, I think what you’re referring to is the CHAMPVA program for spouses, widows, and dependent children of vets disabled due to a service-connected disability, vets who died of a service-connected disability, or vets who died on active duty. Don’t know how many there are, but these don’t go to the VA hospital. I wonder why they don’t expand this program to vets themselves.

The stories coming out are heartbreaking. For decades, families have had to advocate on behalf of their family member to get the system to work as we thought it was intended but usually a phone call to a Congressman’s office could sort things out as a last resort. Like any other institution, there were wonderful, caring professionals; those who were just punching a clock; and those who needed to be elsewhere in my experience as the daughter of a vet disabled in WWII.

One of the biggest things the VA system had going for it was its expertise in dealing with vets, the familiarity with their issues and the ability to provide a dignified process and environment for them. My father occasionally had the option of going to a regular hospital, but he preferred the VA because the patients and medical personnel were familiar with his type wounds and resulting conditions. It seems now the vets can’t get medical care, are no longer respected by the system created to serve them, and every attempt is made to strip them of whatever dignity they have left. What a needless tragedy for the vets, their families, and the resulting ripple effect across our communities. We owe it to them to provide a better process.

Jackster June 9, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Like the draft being removed from the equation, there is no direct political pressure on local officials for the treatment of vets in their communities.

When the draft was in place, you had to pay a political price to go to war. And you had to have the nation backing you to go to war.

Same goes with Vets – where is the political skin & leadership of non federal types? These are vets, facilities, and dollars in your local community.

Ellynn June 9, 2014 at 2:31 pm

My cousin wanted to work at the VA in Milwaukee after graduating from nursing school last year. She applied, but while she waited from them to get back to her, she was approached by not 1 but 5 private sector hosptial systems. They would all paid her 12 % or more then if she worked at the VA, a 1 to 16% signing bonus, and a better benifit package. In a day and age where everyone want to cut public sector wages and pensions, it’s going to be harder to find people to work the public sector in fields that have small numbers of quailfied doctors and nurse to start with.

joe June 9, 2014 at 6:30 pm

The VA has problems in other areas that are not in the news. A few years ago, I was applying for a government job. Some job openings are only available to disabled vets, and this was one of them. I needed a letter on VA letterhead that stated that I was drawing disabled pay. The letter had to be less than a year old, and since the one I had was almost 10 years old, I went to the Atlanta VA Regional Office to get a new one. Every person that I saw verified that I was a disabled vet, but sent me to someone else for the letter. Finally, after 4 hours, I found a clerk who was willing to type a new letter.

During my 4 hours at the VA, I was waiting half the time, and talking with someone half the time. So, not counting my waiting in line time, something that should have taken 2 minutes to generate took 2 hours.

The VA system is broken.