The resignation of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on Friday should leave his Washington critics feeling hollow. Their demands have been met. He has fallen on his sword.
Shinseki’s shortcomings as a bureaucrat can’t tarnish his remarkable military record. Washington has plenty of bureaucrats. It has precious few people who have served their nation with such valor and dedication as Shinseki exhibited in two tours of Vietnam and the rest of his military career.
His departure solves a political problem for the Obama administration, but it doesn’t resolve the far more vexing problem of how to repair the hugely dysfunctional veterans health care system.
The report released last week by the VA’s Office of Inspector General found problems systemwide in scheduling veterans for medical care and in manipulating records to hide long waits for those appointments. The investigation has expanded to 42 sites.
Problems have been building at the VA for some time. Over the years, the department has expanded its mission and reach, opening to all veterans, not just those with service-related disabilities or low incomes. Its budget – now more than $57 billion – has grown much faster than its patient load.
So, how to recalibrate?
“It’s time for a return to original principles,” former VA Secretary Anthony Principi wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “Those with disabilities incurred while in service – especially in combat or while training for combat – should never again have to wait in line for health care or benefits.”
Principi suggested changing the VA’s antiquated disability compensation system “to develop a new framework that promotes wellness” and compensates veterans for injuries and diseases caused by battlefield exposure, not “the expected and ordinary effects of aging.” He wrote that the government should “seriously consider” realigning the separate Veterans Affairs and Defense Department health care systems. A fully integrated system would provide greater purchasing power for drugs, medical supplies and equipment. Those savings could be used to improve care.
The best way to ensure veterans don’t languish on secret waiting lists is to give them greater flexibility to seek medical care through private systems when the VA can’t or won’t see them soon enough. At the same time, encouraging broader access to private health care systems would allow the VA to focus on the specialized care it does best, such as treatment of traumatic injuries.
Taxpayers would still pick up the tab. But the responsibilities for more veteran health care would fall on a larger number of doctors and hospitals already prepared to treat patients with many of the same health problems, minor or major, veterans encounter.
Real accountability at the VA – from those who concocted and covered up secret waiting lists – is a work in progress. Congress’ rising interest in this system’s failings creates a perfect time to focus on the future of care for the nation’s veterans. The priority should be to focus on those who most urgently need that care because of the wounds they’ve suffered defending this country – not on salvaging the government-run colossus that the VA has become while Congress writes ever bigger checks.