A $17 billion legislative compro- mise reached this week to treat structural maladies ailing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs stands as a victory for fairness to America’s wounded warriors, for accountability at the tarnished agency and for hope that this session’s do-nothing Congress actually can do something constructive for the welfare of the nation.
As such, members of the U.S. House and Senate should adopt the package before they bolt the capital for their five-week recess this weekend.
Although full-scale war in the Middle East and escalating chaos in Ukraine have shifted congressional and public attention spans away from the VA scandal in recent weeks, reports of shoddy treatment of our veterans that unleashed the outrage remain. Just earlier this month, a veteran collapsed and died in the Albuquerque Veteran Affairs hospital cafeteria after waiting 30 minutes for transfer to the emergency room, a five-minute walk from the cafeteria.
That incident reinforces audit findings earlier this year that concluded that 57,436 veterans had been waiting 90 days or more for an initial medical appointment, with some waiting as long as 145 days to see their primary care physician or a specialist. It also found that many schedulers had cooked appointment books to make such outrageously long wait times appear shorter. As they did, at least 23 veterans died, according to the VA’s own admissions.
Clearly, America’s skilled and valiant service men and women should not suffer such callous malfeasance. They’ve earned nothing short of fair treatment and superior care from a grateful nation.
DETAILS OF THE DEAL
The deal announced Monday by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., produces promising steps in those directions.
Among its many provisions, the deal provides $10 billion for veterans to seek private care if they live 40 miles or more from a VA facility, $5 billion for more doctors and clinicians and funding to lease 27 additional medical facilities in 18 underserved states. It also gives incoming VA Secretary Bob McDonald and other administrators the power to immediately fire senior executives who falsify data or engage in other egregious offenses.
As such, it represents a promising prescription for healing some of the ailments weakening citizens’ faith, trust and confidence in the VA. We’re particularly pleased that the proposal goes beyond dollars and cents and addresses the culture of mediocrity that the many investigations, audits and horror stories from maltreated veterans have revealed in recent months. Closer oversight with stricter accountability — up to and including immediate termination for poor performance — will help to ensure our nation’s honorable veterans no longer receive dishonorable service.
At the same time, however, dollars and cents must be part of any remedy to treat the department’s festering wounds, some of which resulted from insufficient staffing and facilities.
Such logic, however bypasses some tea partyers and other opponents to the deal who argue that the U.S. can ill afford increased spending that threatens to increase our national debt. Sanders, however, offers this compelling rebuttal to those naysayers: “Planes and tanks and guns are a cost of war. So is taking care of the men and women who fight our battles.”
To its credit, Congress has acted with uncharacteristic speed and seriousness in addressing the VA crisis. In the span of only two months, the House and Senate have thoroughly investigated the slew of problems at VA and rapidly drafted corrective legislation. They should act with that same sense of responsible urgency in adopting the compromise by week’s end. America’s veterans deserve no less.