Saturday, May 24, 2014

The VA

From the website, a quote often seen on VA buildings.  Fair use claimed.
Greetings All:
This post has been percolating in my head for a while.   Although I elect not to weigh in much on overtly political matters, I’m making an exception with this post.  Before I go any further, I should state these are my comments and I do not claim to speak on behalf of any organization, entity, or governmental agency.  Not with that bit of housekeeping out of the way, I’ll offer my two cents on the VA scandal.  I’ll do my best to keep this brief.  Then again, considering both the depth and gravity of this matter, I’ll likely fail miserably.  

Unless you’ve been paddling the Amazon for the past month, you’ve likely heard about the growing scandal with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).   Some might say “scandal” is too harsh a word.  OK, fair enough, let’s look to the definition of scandal from our friends at


1.  a disgraceful or discreditable action, circumstance, etc.  
So let's take a look at the facts, shall we?  In a nutshell, there have been multiple accounts of VA hospitals keeping "secret lists" of the true number of patients (another word for these people is veterans) waiting for care.  The story blew wide open a few weeks back when it was reported that up to 40 veterans died while waiting for care.  Since then, the number of cities with similar allegations has multiplied like dandelions in a vacant lot.

I think it's not an abuse of the vernacular to call this a scandal.  In the 1976 movie, Network, the famous line is uttered, "I'm mad as hell and am not going to this this anymore!"   

Lots of people are expressing outrage about this matter.  Even the President (as quoted in The Washington Post, full cite below) weighed in on this scandal:

"So if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period,...”  “Once we know the facts, I assure you if there is misconduct it will be punished.”

I cannot fault the President for these words.  What I do fault is that they are having to be said in the first place.  I fault that our veterans are having to wait for care.  I am not, say again not, saying there is conclusive proof that this delay in care is a proximate cause of any veteran's death.  

However, the fact there appears to have been "secret lists" is outrageous.  If it comes out that these secret lists were ordered or even passively tolerated by persons in authority, there need to be firings.  I would also expect the Department of Justice to look into the propriety of convening grand juries in the appropriate jurisdiction to see if Federal charges need to be brought.

I think we've got a scandal here folks. 

There are a number of organizations out there that are offering both criticism and solutions.  One group in particular that I am proud of is IAVA, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.  A bit of "truth in lending," I'm a member of this group and I am honored to count their founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff as a friend.  In 2007 or 2008, I called him out of the blue looking for a pro bono witness for PTSD.  He came through and I've been proud to see how he and his team (he'll be the first to share credit) have built IAVA into an advocacy organization for this generation of veterans and their families.

Paul has been on the talk show circuit lately and in my opinion, doing a great job of offering a harsh, yet fair critique of this situation.  I have a link below to his interview with Chuck Todd on The Daily Rundown.  I highly encourage you to watch this as it helps both explain the problem and offer a way ahead.  Solutions are what we need to all that ails the VA.

Although I am not a big cliche guy, I do believe a picture is worth (adjusted for inflation) more than a thousand words.  Take a look at the photo below and it captures clearly how huge this problem has become:

IAVA's count of U.S. cities with VA allegations of misconduct, courtesy of Paul Reickhoff.

If things were not bad enough, there is the separate issue of disability claims.  After a dozen years of war, we've got a LOT of folks who are hurt.  The Washington Post offers this sobering assessment:

"A tide of disability claims from soldiers who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan has inundated the VA. The VA also recently made veterans suffering from additional ailments tied to exposure from Agent Orange during the Vietnam War eligible for disability claims, increasing the number of people filing claims. The claims seek financial compensation for injuries suffered during military service. About 300,000 cases were stuck in processing for more than 125 days, our colleague Greg Jaffe reported Wednesday. The backlog peaked last year at 611,000 claims. Obama and Shinseki made it a point to reduce the glut."

The following are the official casualty figures from the Department of Defense as published by IAVA:


OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Casualties: 4,423
OND (Operation New Dawn, the conclusion of the Iraq war)Casualties: 66
OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, including Afghanistan) Casualties: 2,320
Wounded in Action: 52,003

While these numbers are sobering, it does not tell the whole story.  When one factors in all the other combat and combat-related injuries, the number of casualties sky-rockets.  I have a cite below to an article claiming the number of veterans with injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) pushes the number north of a million.  At first, I thought this number was high.  Then I found a RAND corporation study that stated one in five returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan reported symptoms for PTSD.  What's one in five?  300,000.  Oh, and this report was from 2008.  I've got the link to the story posted below.

What's the takeaway from all this?  I'd offer the following:  the VA better get this fixed because there are likely to be many more veterans seeking care.   

I recognize this blog post has growth to War and Peace length, but I feel in all fairness I need to offer the VA the opportunity to speak on their own behalf.  To that end, please see a press release from Secretary Shinseki from May 1st: 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                    
May 1, 2014                                      

Statement by VA Secretary Shinseki on Allegations Regarding the Phoenix VA Health Care System

WASHINGTON – Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki made the following statement on the allegations regarding the Phoenix VA Health Care System:

“We take these allegations very seriously. Based on the request of the independent VA Office of Inspector General, in view of the gravity of the allegations and in the interest of the Inspector General’s ability to conduct a thorough and timely review of the Phoenix VA Health Care System (PVAHCS), I have directed that PVAHCS Director Sharon Helman, PVAHCS Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third PVAHCS employee be placed on administrative leave until further notice. 

“Providing Veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at the Department of Veterans Affairs. We care deeply for every Veteran we are privileged to serve.

“We believe it is important to allow an independent, objective review to proceed. These allegations, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and if the Inspector General’s investigation substantiates these claims, swift and appropriate action will be taken. 

“Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA health care. I appreciate the continued hard work and dedication of our employees and of the community stakeholders we work with every day in our service to Veterans.”

 I attempt to practice optimism, so let me conclude this by saying I do think this will get better.  It will get better because we as Americans are more than just, "made as Hell."  We're also really good at fixing things when we want to, anger just happens to be a catalyst.  I also think this will get fixed because there are many, I am sure, dedicated VA employees who are ashamed beyond words at this scandal.  These are the doctors and care givers who work in hospitals and clinics.  They are also the folks who are laboring in the late May sun and heat to see our cemeteries are in tip top shape for the observances this weekend.  I saw first-hand their labors at the Rock Island Cemetery today.

The Rock Island Arsenal National Cemetery, photo by Jeno Berta

As this is Memorial Day, it is proper to pause to recall the fallen.  However, there are countless others who served who while not gone, are in pain, are suffering.  They did their duty and now it is time for America to honor it's end of the bargain, to care for them.  To care for them with dignity and gratitude.  If it means more buildings, more doctors, more staff, more whatever, make it so.  If it means gas goes up to $5.00 a gallon tomorrow to pay for it, make it so.  We owe this to our veterans, those who as Lincoln said, "...have borne the burden." 

With that, I'll step off the soapbox.  Thanks for reading and thanks for doing whatever you chose to get involved.  I've got links below to IAVA and the Wounded Warrior Project.  Both organizations offer ways to contribute both financially and volunteer.  If you are close to a VA hospital, I bet there are opportunities to help out in some meaningful way.  Please, please know that there is no gesture too small.  The only thing worth measuring is the sincerity of the effort.  

Be well my friends,


No comments:

Post a Comment