Paul Greenberg

Fast on the uptake as ever, the speaker of the U.S. House, the permanently tanned if not taxidermied John Boehner, has delivered his judgment on the ever-unfolding scandal at the Veterans Administration: "The fact that more than 57,000 veterans are still waiting for their first doctor appointment from the VA is a national disgrace." Ya think?

The speaker has a way of making the obvious sound like his personal discovery. This latest statistic in the news is hardly news any more, but just another sliver of tissue from the VA's tumorous undersurface to be examined and diagnosed.

The VA now has another transient chief. (This one is only an acting secretary because these days its chiefs seem to come and go with every disgrace.) He calls the latest data about how long the VA is keeping vets waiting for treatment evidence of "the systemic problems we face...." To translate, systemic is the latest bureaucratese for rotten through-and-through.

Metastasizing might have been a better term for the problems at the Veterans Administration, since the rot just keeps on showing up. Or at least it just keeps on being revealed.

This new, only acting secretary of the VA says its problems "demand immediate actions," which may be the way this administration deals with any problem: First deny it, or maybe dismiss it as not all that bad, then react in horror when a chronic crisis can no longer be covered up, and only then take immediate action -- and only immediate action. That is, adopt some stopgap and then forget about it. As with Obamacare in general, which now has more patches than a worn-out inner tube, and in the end may prove nothing but patches. (They tend to be called waivers.)

One of the White House's various spokesflacks, Josh Earnest, sounds both as comic and deadpan as his name when he declares: "The release of today's data is an indication of the president's commitment to be transparent about this process." As transparent as he was about Benghazi, no doubt. Transparently misleading. At least till the administration's line was exposed as utterly false, which didn't take all that long, but long enough for the president to stick with it an embarrassingly long time.

Do you think this still youngish man who hangs out in the Oval Office will ever learn? Probably not, for his self-satisfaction seems as sweeping as his self-regard. But hope springs eternal -- the way this administration does leaks.

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.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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