A broken VA health care system

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Washington, DC, June 2, 2014 | comments

It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is mired in a culture of corruption that permeates much of its senior leadership.

The latest scandal shows that appointment wait times were dramatically longer than the VA reported and that bonuses for VA managers fueled a fraudulent scheduling scheme that rewarded those who knowingly compromised the patient safety of our veterans for financial gain.

The actions taken by VA managers are not simply the result of bureaucratic bungling, but they are criminal and warrant prosecution. The VA has already acknowledged that 23 veterans died from preventable illnesses because they were denied health care due to these scheduling schemes.

There are supporters who have risen to the defense of the VA's leadership, arguing that despite the scandals, it is a well-led organization that does the best it can. They claim that the VA is overburdened by a flood of wounded from 10 years of war that has overwhelmed the system.

Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, alluded to this when she stated, "And so, we go in a war in Afghanistan, leave Afghanistan for Iraq with unfinished business in Afghanistan. Ten years later, we have all of these additional veterans." This argument, coupled with the declaration that the VA struggles due to a lack of resources, could not be further from the truth.

During Vietnam, the returning wounded were stabilized in military hospitals and then medically discharged and placed into the VA health care system to complete their rehabilitation. Unlike the wounded returning from Vietnam, those who have come home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are extended on active duty and receive all of their care through the military health care system, which is completely separate from the VA. While our wounded certainly have an option to go into the VA health care system for their initial rehabilitation, it is voluntary and few choose it.

Veterans with service-connected health conditions, such as wounds suffered in combat or injuries sustained while on active duty, will always have access to the VA health care system, regardless of income status. Veterans accessing the VA system for care that is not considered service-connected are required to pay for it on a sliding scale based on their income. Most of the care provided to patients in the VA system is not to treat service-connected conditions.

Funding available to the VA system has gone up year after year and has more than kept up with the increases in the veteran patient population receiving care. In 2001 there were 3.8 million veterans receiving care under the VA system. This year the number is projected to be 5.9 million. Meanwhile, VA funding went from $22 billion in 2001 to an appropriated $55 billion for 2014. The VA is failing our veterans despite these funding increases.

A crisis of confidence has rocked the VA system, and action is urgent. The members of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which I chair, will continue working together, Republicans and Democrats alike, to exercise our constitutionally mandated responsibility to provide oversight. We will continue to investigate the veteran and whistle-blower complaints we receive. We will seek bipartisan legislative solutions to help fix the VA, but ultimately nothing will be a substitute for effective leadership within the organization.

In addition, President Obama should appoint a bipartisan commission composed of prominent citizens with national recognition and significant depth of professional experience to fully look into the VA system in order to develop a comprehensive solution to fix it.

The VA is failing our veterans despite having the necessary resources available to provide excellent care. This is unacceptable. The VA can only be reformed with new leadership that is willing to make dramatic changes.

Eric Shinseki, who resigned Friday, was a great soldier who served our nation with honor and distinction in the U.S. Army, but as VA secretary he failed to lead. Obama must appoint a proven leader to take charge of the VA who will end the culture of corruption and bureaucratic incompetence that is hurting our veterans. History will judge this president harshly if he does not confront this great failure with decisive action and a vision for serving those who have served us.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Aurora, is a Marine Corps combat veteran with service in the first Gulf War and the Iraq war.

Rep. Mike Coffman
The Denver Post
May 30, 2014

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