The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has failed America’s veterans. The most recent scandal in Phoenix, Arizona that resulted in the preventable deaths of almost 40 veterans is sadly, just the tip of the iceberg. It is a part of a much larger story where veterans have had to suffer the consequences of an inept VA for far too long. And too often those consequences result in death due to negligence at the VA.
Sharon Helman, the current director at the Phoenix VA facility, is all too familiar with scandals that involve the death of veterans. In 2009, a government report showed that VA officials were significantly underreporting the number of veterans’ suicides in the Spokane, Washington area. Only 9 of the at least 22 suicides were reported. Sharon Helman was the director at the Spokane VA facility at the time.
Instead of holding Helman accountable for forging data at the Spokane facility, the VA opted to avoid any form of accountability measures and merely moved her to a different VA facility in Illinois. In 2012 she became the director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System and is accused of keeping a secret waiting list that resulted in the death of at least 40 veterans. In 2013, Helman received a $9,000 bonus on top of her $169,000 annual salary.
Six veterans died and 22 became seriously ill after an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at multiple VA hospitals in Pittsburg as the result of poor sanitation and management. The Center for Disease and Control reported that the outbreak occurred around February 2011 but an external investigation shows that Legionella bacteria could have been present as far back as 2007. The VA chose not to announce the outbreak until November of 2012. Criminal charges were not filed and top-level VA executives at the Pittsburg facility received bonuses.
Six veterans are dead as a result of delayed routine cancer screenings like colonoscopies or endoscopies at a Columbia, SC VA facility. Their cancers were not diagnosed in time or did not receive proper treatment prior to their death. The number of deaths due to delayed cancer treatment and screenings could be as high as 20. Although the VA is well aware of the delays, there has been no accountability and nothing has been done to fix the problem.
The stories of preventable deaths and mismanagement are not just tied to these major scandals. Reports continue to pop up from Atlanta, GA, Memphis, TN, St. Louis, MO, and Florida. The claims backlog, medical malpractice, failed mental healthcare screenings, unsanitary conditions, dysfunctional mismanagement, lack of oversight and unethical environment all contribute to the VA’s failure. The list goes on and on.
On Monday, President Obama addressed the Phoenix VA scandal stating that the VA is provided with the necessary funding to accomplish their mission of serving and protecting veterans. And he is absolutely right. The VA problem does not involve a lack of resources. VA funding has increased over 60 percent since 2009, from $98 billion to $153 billion. They have the personnel, the funding and the resources to serve veterans and instead, veterans are dying on their watch. It is an absolute disgrace that with that size of a budget the VA continues to fail our nation’s heroes. It is time for President Obama to make this a national priority.
The problem lies within the pure dysfunction of an oversized bureaucracy with no accountably or oversight. It is a broken system filled with mismanagement and deceit that has allowed a lack of accountability to fester within the ranks at the VA. There’s no accountability, no transparency and in some of the cases that have been brought to light recently, no ethical standards either.
It is despicable that the culture within the VA has been allowed to proceed with the status quo for as long as it has without being held accountable for their actions (or inaction). The warning signs were there. Veteran organizations have been raising the red flag for years over the systemic leadership failures.
Veterans have been over-promised and underserved for far too long. With the number of preventable deaths continuing to rise, enough is enough. Our veterans ask for very little in return for their selfless service to our nation. Veterans and their families have made sacrifices that many cannot begin to comprehend.
Our veterans deserve better. No more excuses. No more false promises. Fix the VA now.
Amber Barno is a Military Advisor at Concerned Veterans for America. Amber is a former helicopter pilot in the Army with combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information visit www.amberbarno.com