Veterans deserve more from us

As I watched military veterans participating in the annual Torch Relay recently, I had to wonder how many of them, having done their duty for us, have found us shirking our duty to them.

And how many local veterans would have liked to have attended the event – but couldn’t because their health just wouldn’t permit and they haven’t yet been granted appointments to see Department of Veterans Affairs doctors.

The Torch Relay is part of the annual Ogden Newspapers Half Marathon Classic in Wheeling. It allows our community to give heart-felt thanks to the men and women who have served us in the military.

But how hollow is a “thank you” for the man or woman who’s sick, perhaps in pain, and has been on a VA health care waiting list for months? Worse, what must the families of veterans who died waiting for VA care think of us as a nation?

It’s more than a bit ironic that the armed forces, known throughout the world as the most efficient, fearsome fighting force in the world, exist in the context of a government riddled with waste, inefficiency and yes, outright lying by bureaucrats more interested in keeping their jobs than serving veterans.

Let me hasten to say I’m not talking about the health care professionals – the doctors, nurses, etc., who almost always do their best for veterans. But we all know what they do is managed by the giant VA bureaucracy.

Many of them try to do their best. But there are a substantial number of bad apples who never seem to get thrown out of the barrel.

What is especially infuriating about the current VA health care scandal is that it’s nothing new. As far back as the 1920s, there were scandals. Then, the newly created Veterans Bureau was rocked by news its head had stolen millions of dollars. He served two years in a federal penitentiary.

In 2001, the Government Accountability Office warned waiting times for VA health care were dangerous. In 2008, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team was told of excessive wait times – and lying about them by some VA officials. As early as 2004, there were reports veterans were receiving shoddy care at Walter Reed Medical Center.

And remember the trouble Vietnam veterans had when some became ill as a result of exposure to Agent Orange?

Some problems involving the VA are getting worse, not better. In 2012, about 245,000 men and women had been on waiting lists for more than a year just to learn whether they could collect veterans benefits.

We’ve known for years the VA is a problem. But what, exactly, is the problem?

The VA has a $164 billion budget. It’s the second-largest agency in federal government, with about 332,000 employees.

But is that enough? The agency handles a variety of programs for veterans, not just health care.

Use of VA health care facilities has increased dramatically. In 2002, the agency handled 46.5 million outpatient health care visits. Ten years later the number was 83.6 million. During the same period, inpatient admissions went from 564,000 in a year to 703,000.

But in 2002, the VA’s budget was only $53.5 billion. Even taking inflation into account, $110 billion more ought to handle a substantial amount of growth.

Still, members of Congress should look at the VA budget. If more money is needed, surely we can find some. Chopping a few billion dollars in “green” energy subsidies would be a start.

That said, it’s clear the VA’s bad apples need to be cleaned out of the barrel, too. Failing veterans is one thing. Lying about it to keep your job – and probably, your performance bonuses – is another.

Let’s not pretend the current VA scandal is anything new. And let’s not pretend we’re going to do something about it, then mount a massive public relations campaign to cover up our failures.

We owe better to our veterans.

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at mmyer@theintelligencer.net