The only thing remarkable about the recent furor over the treatment of veterans by the Veterans Administration hospital system is that people are finally paying attention. The problem is not new.
Twenty years ago I represented the Northeastern suburbs of Atlanta in Congress. A large VA hospital was located in the district and very early in my term I received an invitation to visit the hospital and meet with the management team.
The administrator had arranged a meeting with about a dozen managers. There were a couple of doctors and the head nurse included in the meeting. The size of the management team was striking.
The Phoenix VA Health Care Center in Phoenix, is seen in this Monday, April 28, 2014, file photo. A team of federal investigators swept into the city last month amid allegations of a disturbing cover-up at the veterans hospital, and began interviewing staff at the facility and poring over records, emails and electronic databases.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
The Clinton health care proposals were on the front burner and the administrator suggested that we should shape national health care on the VA model. He was convinced that it could not be improved on. My experience told me that his patients were less enthused than he. They spend most of their time just waiting.
For a few years after that I would drop by the hospital and enter through the waiting room and visit with the veterans waiting to be seen. Some sit there all day. On one occasion a patient had come in the day before and hadn’t been seen. This was his second day in the waiting room.
The long waits are only the beginning of their problems. They also wait years to get a decision on their disability claim. And, too often, they have to drive hours to get to a facility.
We have VA medical facilities and clinics dotting the landscape across the nation. States that were represented by powerful members of Congress have many. Some have few.
Former Congressman Dick Armey (R-Texas) once told the story about a lady in his community near Dallas whose husband was dying in a VA hospital in Houston. She couldn’t afford to stay in a hotel to be near him. She sat by her phone waiting for the call to tell her to arrange to collect the body. The small community hospital at the other end of the block had plenty of beds available, but our system didn’t allow for that.
Veteran Mark Howey waits to ask a question as Sen. John McCain speaks during a forum with veterans regarding lapses in care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital, on Friday, May 9, 2014, in Phoenix. Grieving family members of dead veterans have joined politicians from both parties in loud protests over VA care. (AP Photo/Matt York)
I served on the Veterans Committee at that time and raised the issue of allowing those veterans who were some distance from a VA facility to use the doctor or hospital near their home and send us the bill.
The Veteran’s Service Organizations quickly jumped on that idea and put it to rest. The VSO’s see the veterans health system as “their system” and will not tolerate any suggestion of change.
These professional former soldiers have great sway with the VA due to the numbers of people they represent through the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Viet Nam Vets and others. They do not want to lose that clout.
Unfortunately, the very people they represent are suffering from the principal sin of the bureaucracy – inattention. The bureaucrat doesn’t see patients, he sees numbers. His job is to meet benchmarks. Numbers of patients, treatments, exams, tests, procedures and days waiting to be seen are recorded. If you meet the numbers you are doing your job. Bonuses follow the numbers.
[sharequote align="center"]If you meet the numbers you are doing your job. Bonuses follow the numbers.[/sharequote]
Secretary Eric Shinseki’s appearance before a senate committee Thursday was disheartening. He is a decorated former general with a storied career. He had no idea what was going on. He moved into the job as VA Secretary and was quickly captured by the bureaucracy.
He trusted what they told him and, I suspect, is surprised by the news that veteran’s are dying because they were not being seen. He was being fed the computer printouts that said otherwise. He believed his subordinates. The subordinates see this as a passing story. When the secretary is gone they will still be there.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens to members speak during a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing that is focusing on wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC. The American Legion called Monday for the resignation of Shinseki amid reports by former and current VA employees that up to 40 patients may have died because of delayed treatment at an agency hospital in Phoenix, Arizona.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The chairman of the committee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), went right to the liberal talking points. How many more doctors and nurses do we need? How much more money will it take to solve this?
As luck would have it, on the same day as Chairman Sanders was prompting Secretary Shinseki to ask for more money we learn that the VA had spent $500 million over the last five years on conference room and office furniture.
This sad story has nothing to do with money. It has everything to do with government. Bureaucrats do not get bonuses for caring. They get bonuses for hitting their benchmarks – real or faked.
John Linder served in Congress for 18 years from Georgia. He and his wife, Lynne, have retired to a farm in Northeast Mississippi. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
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