Daily Editorials: A Disservice to Veterans

Creators Syndicate | 5/20/2014, 8:51 a.m.
In an age of partisan polarization, there are few issues that generate as much political unanimity as the need to ...
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki


In an age of partisan polarization, there are few issues that generate as much political unanimity as the need to care for America's veterans. Consensus, however, can have its drawbacks.

When everyone in Washington agrees on a specific goal, the lack of debate can lead to a corresponding lack of scrutiny. What results is government heavy on lip service and light on results.

That seems to be precisely what's happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is reeling from accusations of systemic dysfunction in its delivery of health care.

The VA requires patients to receive care in a timely fashion, usually within 14 days. In Phoenix, however, reports indicate that as many as 1,600 veterans were forced to wait months, while VA employees systematically hid evidence of the bottleneck. As many as 40 are said to have died while awaiting care.

In the aftermath of the Phoenix story, similar tales have begun emerging from VA facilities throughout the country. Only time will tell the full extent of the problem, but it seems clear that the department is failing its mission of delivering timely, effective health care.

As was probably inevitable, calls are now emerging on Capitol Hill for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to tender his resignation.

Whether or not Shinseki could have done more to address these problems is an open question. What's less debatable is that the structure of the VA, not its leadership, is the primary source of its dysfunction.

VA hospitals are essentially America's most direct experiment with single-payer health care. The government owns the facilities and pays for the coverage. It's no surprise then that the system is subject to precisely the same pathologies as we've seen in other countries with similar arrangements: the rationing of care, the low standards of cleanliness and the general failure to put patients first.

The key to ending this dysfunction is to disrupt that sclerosis.

Reforming the system within the parameters of the current status quo isn't enough. We're sympathetic to the argument made recently by Arizona Sen. John McCain: give patients more choices. Just because government finances certain benefits doesn't mean it has to be in charge of providing them.

If veterans were given vouchers for their health care, they could avoid indignities like those suffered in Arizona.

America's men and women in uniform sacrifice for the country with the understanding that they'll be provided for upon their return home. That government dysfunction has called the integrity of that promise into question is unacceptable.

Our veterans deserve better. Lawmakers should take this opportunity to enact sweeping changes to the VA system. If they don't, we'll expect to see more of these horror stories in the future.