VA Scandal: The Fox Is In the Hen House

As I write this editorial, many people are just waking up. Some of you may have planned to venture downtown and honor our fallen military at Memorial Day events. Even as we remember and honor their sacrifices, our government continues to dishonor them through cuts to benefits and most heinous their treatment at VA hospitals.05-28-14-pub-notes.gif

The VA scandal is rocking the nation and folks are lining up to either throw rocks at the VA, make excuses or demand answers. Sadly, it is the people who continue to cut the budgets for veterans care that are shouting the loudest and demanding the most answers. Except, of course, the talking heads from the White House, who once again noted that the President was shocked to hear about the problems at the VA, and in fact, didn’t know anything about it until he heard about it on television.

Is anyone really buying that line anymore? And, if you are, doesn’t it frighten you that our Commander In Chief finds out about the biggest problems facing our nation not from briefings from his staff, but from television journalists? But, I digress.

The VA has long been understaffed, under funded and kept in a state of disrepair. Veterans utilizing their services can expect long wait times — not just for primary care appointments, but also in the emergency room. All of which, is also true of many public hospitals today, but the VA’s shortcomings are complicated by staffing issues and administrators looking for shortcuts to meet goals that are quite frankly not achievable. (This is also true of military healthcare. I have often said that the care I receive at military facilities is top notch, the problem is the process you have to go through to get there.)

There are many who work in the VA (and in military healthcare) who are passionate about their jobs. And then there are those that just show up to get a paycheck. Thankfully, some of those employees worked at the Arizona VA and brought this national shame to light.

In a time line recently published in USA Today, the scandal is traced back to 2012 when a VA doctor went public with the problems. Early 2012, Dr. Katherine Mitchell, warned Sharon Helman, incoming director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, that the Phoenix ER is overwhelmed and dangerous. Mitchell alleges she was told within days by senior administrators that she had deficient communication skills and was transferred out of the ER.

Later that year, the VA implemented the electronic wait-time tracking and promised to make improved patient access a top priority. In December, the Government Accountability Office tells the Veterans Health Administration that its reporting of outpatient medical-appointment wait times is “unreliable.” This is where the “secret” wait list came into effect.

In September 2013, Mitchell filed a confidential complaint intended for the VA Office of Inspector General, channeled through Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office. Her list of concerns instead goes to the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs and eventually back to the VA. For her efforts, Mitchell was placed on administrative leave.

Several other VA employees go to bat for their patients, and each one who filed complaints was administratively punished. And that brings us to where we are today. The President says those responsible for the lack of care will be held accountable, yet the head of the VA keeps his post. And the White House keeps pushing for cuts to veterans benefits.

It’s kind of hard to protect our veterans, when the fox is in the hen house.

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