Efforts announced this week to improve health care for veterans call to mind the old axiom about actions speaking louder than words, as President Obama said he will use executive action to institute changes in the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs. This comes in the wake of a scandal that revealed some VA facilities had altered record-keeping to hide the fact that patients were waiting an inordinate amount of time for appointments. The scandal led to reports that dozens of veterans had died as a result, and it culminated in the resignation of the VA's director.
A report released this week by the VA inspector general's office suggested that patients died after receiving poor care, not from delayed care. That might or might not be the case, but the semantics are not nearly as important as the solutions. With that in mind, Obama said his actions will result in:
• Members leaving military service automatically being enrolled in a transition program, rather than having to seek it out.
• Expanded peer support for mental health.
• Studies on early detection of post-traumatic stress and suicidal tendencies.
• And extensive services for those who work with veterans.
While Obama's policy speech hints at necessary changes, it also leaves several pertinent questions unanswered. Among them is how congressional Republicans will react. These are the same Republicans who plan to file a lawsuit against the president for his use of executive action in delaying a portion of the Affordable Care Act. Will they voice the same concerns about executive action when it is designed to assist one of their party's core constituencies? The guess is that the silence will be deafening.
That question, however, is merely a piece of smirk-inducing inside politics, the kind that will draw attention mostly from partisan policy wonks. Of more concern is the role the government can play in rebuilding trust with America's veterans. As Joe Davidson wrote in The Washington Post: "Mistakes can be corrected. Bad service can be improved. Broken trust, however, can be difficult to fix. President Obama is trying to rebuild confidence in the Department of Veteran Affairs."
That is an issue that has long tentacles. Regardless of how one feels about the American military or the United States' role over the years in global politics, it is unconscionable to suggest that the nation does not have an obligation to its veterans. Those who have served honorably made a deal with the American people to serve and protect in exchange for certain benefits. The government must live up to its end of the bargain.
Along those lines, some additional recent data suggest that the plight of veterans has improved. Federal reports show that the number of homeless veterans has fallen by 33 percent since 2010, and the number of homeless veterans sleeping in the street, as opposed to shelters, has dropped 40 percent during that time. Wrote Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight.com: "What's more, it's falling at least in large part due to government intervention. … In recent years, the federal government has vastly increased spending on housing assistance for veterans, mostly in the form of direct housing vouchers."
That represents the sort of obligation the federal government has to its veterans. With the nation spending most of the past 13 years engaged in war, those obligations will continue to be paramount and costly for decades to come. Living up to them will require diligent action.