At last count, which can never be certain with this crew in charge, more than 57,000 vets have been waiting at least 90 days to get their first appointment at the VA, and another 64,000 or so who made its waiting list over the past decade never did get in to see a doctor. Though it's not clear how many of those 64,000 on waiting lists just gave up and sought treatment elsewhere. Or died waiting.
This latest hullabaloo over the VA erupted when it was revealed that at least 18 veterans died while waiting for treatment at the Phoenix VA, and there'll probably be more such revelations as all these investigations go national. So it is with scandals that keep on shocking, or should. But even the shocking grows routine when the news is about the VA.
Lest we forget, there are still some fine hospitals in the VA system. Indeed, there was a time when the Veterans Administration was considered a model of medical treatment, hard as it is to remember that far back.
While the worst records were being turned in at VA hospitals like the one in Honolulu (average wait time 145 days) and Harlingen, Texas (average wait time 85 days), the best records were being compiled by VA facilities at Coatesville, Pa. (average wait time 17 days) and Bedford, Mass. (average wait time 12 days), and Battle Creek, Mich. (only 1 -- one! -- day's wait).
Surely there will be excuses aplenty for the VA's sorry performance in general. One thing the VA, like the rest of the federal government, is never short of is excuses. Good enough for government work, as the standard phrase goes. We ourselves first heard the phrase in another federal institution, the U.S. Army, from a wizened old sergeant at Fort Sill who was resisting a green young officer's attempt to get a 105-mm howitzer pointed in the right direction rather than at the nearby town of Lawton, Okla.
It would be a mistake to go by statistics alone; they can be tricky. Mark Twain once classified falsehoods in ascending order as "lies, damned lies, and statistics." Still, some of these stats are damning even if they provide only a cursory insight into the mare's nest that is the VA. Even if numbers do lie, they're still a good starting place to judge and improve performance, much like the results of standardized testing in the schools and the much maligned Common Core.
Lest we forget this, too, there was a time when the VA resisted releasing statistics like these. That was when Robert Petzel was undersecretary for health at that agency. Dr. Petzel was later forced out of office and hasn't been missed. So at least the VA has finally been obliged to cough up these numbers, sad as some of them are.
Happily, the U.S. Congress hasn't been entirely asleep during this whole affair. The GOP's John McCain, that old warhorse, has teamed up in the Senate with an unlikely partner, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, whose party affiliation is uncertain (Democrat, Independent, socialist?) to propose pouring more money into the VA, whose $160-billion annual budget is already the fourth largest of any in the federal government. It's the standard Washington response to any really serious problem: Throw still more money at it.
Over in the House, its Republican majority has proposed a plethora of bills (nine of them by one estimate) to help veterans, but most are likely to be ignored by the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority and aren't exactly enthusiastic about any Republican proposal to reform the system.
Despite quickie reforms ("immediate actions"), straightening out the Veterans Administration will be no quick or simple task. It'll be more of a long, hard slog that will take years, if not decades.
This isn't just the politicians' and the bureaucrats' problem. It's all of ours. And it needs to be attacked carefully, efficiently, patiently, and persistently. As a matter of honor.
Let us begin.