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Thank you for your lip service: A bipartisan raw deal

A bipartisan raw deal
A bipartisan raw deal
Public domain

On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-WV), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said he will reintroduce legislation to offer military veterans the option of private medical care rather than endure long waits at facilities under the scandal-plagued Veterans Affairs Department.

Headlines regarding problems at the Veterans Administration are nothing new, particularly in regard to the struggles many veterans face in getting badly needed medical care.

The GOP has had an easy time pointing fingers at Barack Obama, whose administration has hardly been known for accountability and that hasn’t changed in regard to the problems at the VA. Last week, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki tendered his own resignation, apparently without prodding from the White House.

Senator John McCain has not pulled any punches in blaming President Obama for the issues at the VA based on Obama’s 5 ½ years in office with no resolution.

While criticism toward Barack Obama coming from the GOP is as predictable as tomorrow's sunrise, the assessment is understandable. As CNN’s Alex Castellanos put it, “laying the blame for Veterans Administration failures at the feet of a man who pledged, six long years ago, to fix those problems is inviting. During his 2008 White House transition, president-in-waiting Barack Obama promised to ‘make the VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible.’ "

While Harry Truman pledged, “the buck stops here,” Obama’s critics have had many reasons to wonder when and where the buck ever stops in his administration, if ever.

Since The Washington Times obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act indicating “Veterans Affairs officials warned the Obama-Biden transition team in the weeks after the 2008 presidential election that the department shouldn’t trust the wait times that its facilities were reporting,” it seems clear that problems at the VA shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.

Castellanos also observed, “Now, Obama not only tells us he is shocked to find that the crisis he has ignored is still there, he also insists, ‘I will not tolerate it.’ "

Well...that should put our minds at ease.

Of course, in a shocking development, Democrats likewise have been quick to assign blame to Obama’s predecessor. Unfortunately, those accusations are not without merit either. While it may not have been "old news" from the getgo, under the Bush administration an inspector general’s report in 2005 documented a number of violations as well as efforts to cover them up and to make matters worse, a follow-up report in 2007 indicated that the problems persisted and the VA had failed to enact any of the previous report’s recommendations.

Reports this week indicate some of the problems with wait times may even be deliberate manipulation tied to employee bonuses.

Rest easy, veterans. Now that you're home, the good folks at the VA are looking out for you.

As it happens, all the 2008 presidential candidates including McCain, himself a veteran, were critical of the Bush administration for a lack of attention to issues at the VA. Senators McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama — who himself sat on the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee at the time, all referred to the long wait times, lack of accountability, and poor service provided to veterans. McCain proposed reform and Obama advocated spending a lot more money and putting additional focus on the agency to rectify the situation.

But as it happens, the problems were not news by the time he took office and Barack Obama was, quite literally, the only one to move into the Oval Office. So six years later the same stories resurface and how should his critics react? That is not to say no one took the usual path of supposed "reform" which really means throwing money at problems without addressing fundamental failures in structure or policy. OMB records show Congress provided substantial increases in VA funding during both the Bush and Obama years.

Is there an elephant in the room? No, not that elephant...but yes. There should be some invariable conclusions, starting with a lack of leadership on this issue but also that increases in government spending alone are no guarantee of solutions. This is a core failure of government "management" that the GOP seems unwilling to face when it pertains to the military and the Democrats when it applies anywhere else. So suddenly the GOP has come to the accurate realization that throwing money at a problem without reform does not solve problems so naturally, the Democrats and the media are circulating memes and stories about that the GOP is blocking various bills aimed at supporting veterans.

This problem was highlighted when Republicans opposed Sanders’ original bill to expand veterans’ benefits. While the latest measure was supported by more than two dozen veterans groups, Heritage Action urged lawmakers to vote against it, claiming it "fails to make necessary reforms to the VA system that is already overburdened and flawed, harming both veterans truly in need of assistance and taxpayers in the process."

While being the party of "no" is half-correct when legislation doesn't go far enough, where are the alternatives? There are few if any greater examples of bipartisan ineptitude. For almost half George W. Bush’s tenure in office and more than half of Barack Obama’s, these problems have persisted while both parties have continued halfhearted efforts to rectify them with money and rhetoric but no accountability.

Although Sanders' attempts to offer private care seems a reasonable short-term and possibly long-term alternative and would presumably be attractive to Republicans, how to pay for it could be a boondoggle. Otherwise, for the agency itself, attempts to spend more without any serious attempts at reform are unlikely to yield better results and yet the Republicans have offered no alternatives of consequence and as legitimate an issue as it is to find out the truth about Benghazi, the reality is that a lot more men have died due to negligence at the VA, and future deaths are preventable.

Moreover, the reality is the scope is much bigger than just the VA. Systemic problems with Pentagon and Department of Defense procurement and accounting are responsible for $8.5 trillion in funds that are unaccounted for and the detrimental effects on soldiers, both active duty and retired, go far beyond long wait times for medical treatment.

Perhaps the example of Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Manchin (D-WV), who have introduced the first legislation with teeth aimed at stopping the out-of-control accounting shenanigans, will provide a template for addressing the negligence and malfeasance that's come to be routine.

Say what you will about the private sector but a company that treated its clients this way wouldn’t have any...where competition exists, providers cannot get away with poor customer service. Before we fantasize about our government administering any programs that will solve all our struggles with financial inequality and affordable health care, perhaps we should hold our elected officials accountable for allowing this travesty to continue as long as it has.

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