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OUR OPINION: America can, should do better by its veterans

Sioux City Journal - 5/6/2018

Overall, are we as a nation meeting our obligation to provide veterans with nothing short of the highest level of care and support possible in return for their service?

Stories related to the Department of Veterans Affairs Americans have read in recent years, including this year, cast a cloud of doubt over the answer to that question.

Consider these examples:

- In 2014, a national scandal erupted over waits at VA hospitals, including stories about veterans who died waiting to see a doctor. The scandal resulted in the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and passage by Congress of a VA reform bill.

- In July 2015, presidential candidate Donald Trump said the VA is "probably the most incompetently run agency in the United States."

- In August 2016, The New York Times reported a VA reform bill signed into law by President Obama - the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act - was falling short of expectations in a number of ways.

"Nowhere is the shortfall more clear than in the wait for appointments: Veterans are waiting longer to see doctors than they were two years ago, and more are languishing with extreme waiting times," The Times reported.

In 2017, according to a USA Today story, the VA inspector general released a report finding widespread inaccuracies in scheduling records at a dozen VA hospitals. According to the story, the records understated how long veterans were waiting for appointments and prevented as many as 13,000 veterans from getting VA-funded care in the private sector - something they were entitled to if they waited longer than 30 days.

Following an investigation at dozens of VA hospitals in multiple states, a VA inspector general finding in March reported VA recording of false wait times in thousands of cases, USA Today reported. The report said nearly one in five veterans waits more than 30 days for an appointment, with an average wait of 53 days, at those hospitals.

In other words, wait times remain a problem.

- In March, the VA inspector general blamed a "culture of complacency" for problems at the D.C. Veterans Affairs Medical Center, The Hill reported. Those problems, The Hill story said, included unsterile conditions, a lack of medical supplies and unsecured patient documents.

"Failed leadership at multiple levels within VA put patients and assets at the D.C. VA Medical Center at unnecessary risk and resulted in a breakdown of core services," Inspector General Michael Missal said in a written statement upon release of the report. "It created a climate of complacency that allowed these conditions to exist for years."

- In March, VA Secretary David Shulkin stepped down in the wake of a scandal involving travel expenses. (The White House said he resigned, Shulkin said he was fired.)

- Last month, Ronny Jackson, the White House doctor, withdrew his name from consideration for VA secretary following allegations of professional misconduct (he denies the allegations). President Trump called the allegations "an absolute disgrace," calling on Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, to resign for spreading "false" information about Jackson.

Whoever finally assumes the position will be the fourth VA secretary in less than four years.

We could cite more stories, but you get the idea. Taken as a whole, stories like these do not instill confidence in the commitment to veterans of Washington, D.C.

In other words, our country can and should do better.

Again today, we stress the fact we do not indict all of the VA. As we have said before, we respect those dedicated VA employees who each day approach their duties - and the fundamental responsibility we have as a country - with a full measure of honesty and integrity and who properly honor America's veterans with the quality of service they deserve.

Still, it's clear systemic problems persist and much more work is necessary to elevate the overall system of care for veterans to the level it should be, including appointment of a strong leader equipped with the background, experience and knowledge required to run what is the nation's second-largest federal department.


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