When veterans become victims: Reform the VA now

It’s a story we’ve seen with numbing regularity: military veterans seeking care at a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health facility are met with bureaucratic malfeasance, substandard care, and delayed treatments. As a result, they face worsening health conditions … and even death.

This time it’s out of Phoenix, Arizona, where recent news reports detail how mismanagement at the local VA hospital forced veterans into prolonged waits for treatment, leading to dozens of preventable deaths. It’s the latest in the long chain of evidence revealing that the VA is in dire need of managerial reform — now.

The Phoenix scandal isn’t the first VA failure we’ve seen. In recent months alone, outrageous revelations of how VA dereliction resulted in veterans’ deaths have arisen in Pittsburgh, Pa.; Atlanta, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; and numerous other VA facilities around the United States.

Given how widespread the reports are, it’s not unreasonable to suspect the true number of preventable deaths is much, much higher than has been reported.

In addition to the moral outrage, we should recognize that these are costly failures: in the decade after 9/11, the VA paid out more than $200 million to more than 1,000 grieving families to settle wrongful death cases, according to an analysis by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The Phoenix VA scandal would be disturbing enough if it were simply another story of veterans becoming victims due to bureaucratic ineptitude. But what makes the tale even more alarming is that the allegations suggest corruption and what may amount criminal fraud.

According to Dr. Sam Foote, a retired VA doctor of internal medicine who is the whistleblower in the Arizona case, officials at the Phoenix facility kept two sets of records to hide the long wait times and to obscure the number of preventable deaths.

The Arizona Republic’s report on the scandal notes that “Foote and other whistle-blowers said that Arizona VA executives collect bonuses for reducing patient wait times, yet purported successes stem from manipulation of data instead of improved service to ailing veterans.”

So while veterans were waiting for treatment, growing sicker and dying, VA executives were reportedly falsifying records in order to inflate their bonuses and feather their own nests. It’s a case study in how a corrupt and dysfunctional bureaucracy can run amok. The question is, can the VA be fixed?

We now know beyond a doubt that the VA will never address these problems internally; the department’s response to questions and criticism from outside its walls has been to hunker down, deny problems, and deflect responsibility.

Could the impetus for change come from elsewhere in the executive branch? It’s doubtful. Although President Obama promised as a candidate to address VA’s failures, the fact is that the situation has grown only worse under his administration, which has shown little interest in reshaping the VA into the customer-service oriented agency it should be.