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Patient delays forsake vets

Published: Monday, June 2, 2014 11:20 a.m. CDT

It’s a tale as old as the Republic. When whistleblowing forces wrongdoing out from the shadows, Washington lurches away from the bull’s eye. Bully pulpit indignation seeks to smooth ruffled feathers, duck accountability and deflect blame. 

Administrations under fire too often fixate on ways to avoid political fall-out from misconduct under their watch rather than work to fix what’s broken. The unscrupulous scandal at the Veterans Affairs bureaucracy finally may have cooked its own goose.

It’s time to stop the cycle of duck and cover. In this case, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs needs a top-to-bottom scrubbing. Heads, shoulders, knees and toes. 

Pointing fingers chokes the merits of problem solving that must take place to hold wrongdoers to account and right what’s wrong. Part of the travesty gripping a culture of corruption at the VA is the long-ignored foreshadowing clues that revealed systemic mismanagement within the sprawling bureaucracy. 

Reports of delayed care and bureaucratic intransigence are not news. In fact, presidential candidate Barack Obama leveled rhetorical charges at previous administrations’ failures to address shortcomings in the VA health care system.  President-elect Obama vowed to the nation’s wounded warriors during his transition to the Oval Office in 2008 that he would make the “VA a leader of national health care reform so that veterans get the best care possible.”  

After five-plus years serving as commander-in-chief, the President needs to level with the nation’s veterans and the American public. Veterans’ access to timely care, treatment and diagnosis appears to have been compromised in facilities across the country. 

The federal department operates the largest health care system in the country, managing 1,700 hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and other facilities, administering health care to nearly nine million veterans. 

Falsifying appointment records presumably to secure personal bonus payments or avoid accountability for missed goals exposes a disgraceful culture where “gaming the system” trumped fundamental principles of service and stewardship. Investigators are working with the U.S. Department of Justice to determine if criminal misconduct played a factor in delayed treatment that may have resulted in up to 40 deaths at a VA facility in Phoenix. By any measure of common sense and human decency, putting the health and welfare of wounded warriors at risk by manipulating appointment records — that resulted in delayed care, treatment and diagnosis — makes the situation unconscionable and unpatriotic.

The Obama administration set a high bar of expectations for good governance, insisting it would be “the most open and transparent in history.” However, in many cases throughout the federal bureaucracy, the President has flunked his own standard of excellence he set the day he first took office more than five years ago. 

Entrenched dysfunction at the VA requires unequivocal, decisive action. That means no retreat from needed reforms that will restore confidence and fulfill the promises made to those who served our nation in uniform. That means no stone left unturned to hold wrongdoers to account and bring openness and transparency to veterans and their families. No more ifs, ands or buts. 

From the U.S. Senate, I’ve signed on to legislation that would make it easier to fire senior employees at the VA for poor performance. I’ve also urged the Veterans Affairs secretary not to allow employees to be assigned to long periods of paid leave as a result of the scandal that, in effect, result in extended paid vacations. When the allegations were first reported about the VA hospital in Phoenix, I called upon the inspector general (IG) to conduct a thorough nationwide review of the VA health care network. The IG’s interim report now confirms that this problem is systemic throughout the VA.

The American public rightfully gets worked up when tax dollars are swindled. My oversight work in Washington has exposed plenty of wrongdoers who have milked Uncle Sam’s cash cow from one end of the federal bureaucracy to the other, from tax cheats underpaying the IRS to defense contractors bilking the Pentagon, violators busting salary caps at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and fraudsters manipulating federal payment systems filtered through the U.S. Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services or Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The VA scandal, however, strikes at the covenant made between men and women who answered the call of duty to serve their country, risking life and limb to preserve and defend freedom and our way of life. 

Wounded warriors put their lives on the line in battle for us, putting honor, duty and country first. The federal government must honor the sacred promises made to our nation’s veterans in gratitude for their service and sacrifice.

Last summer I visited the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The sign adorning the 33rd president’s desk in the Oval Office bears advice that our 44th president would do well to heed. The buck stops here, Mr. President.

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