Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proposed an urgent, sensible solution to the scandalous crisis of treatment delays at Veterans Affairs hospitals — and it should finally, belatedly become official policy.
At a time when U.S. military veterans are languishing, and even dying, while being forced to wait for weeks just to see a doctor, McCain’s proposal to allow veterans to seek treatment at any non-VA hospital — with the VA paying the bill — is attracting bipartisan support in Congress because it is simply common sense.
Then again, you won’t be surprised to know the proposal also seemed urgent and sensible to me when I first proposed it in a 2008 book chronicling what seemed to be chronic problems at the VA. After detailing sad stories of veterans who died after they could not obtain prompt treatment at a VA hospital, I wrote the VA should issue to each veteran a “Vet-med card” that would serve veterans’ medical needs just as a Medicare card serves senior citizens’ needs. Veterans who couldn’t get prompt treatment at a VA hospital could go to another hospital, perhaps one nearer their homes, and be treated — with the VA paying the bill.
(I also urged the VA to adopt a more flexible approach so that its hospitals, which are highly rated for treatment of those wounded in war, might not need to duplicate costly cardiac and cancer care readily available at other nearby institutions.)
But, as you may have noticed, Washington did not exactly rush to adopt any of those ideas.
Now this: In a May 23 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, McCain wrote, “Veterans have earned the right to choose where and when they get their medical care, and it is our responsibility to afford them this option.” He said two fellow Republicans, Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have joined him in authoring a bill to “give far greater flexibility to veterans to get the care they need and deserve, where and when they want it, whether in the VA system or not.”
New reason to attack
In the House, Veterans Committee Chair Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have backed the idea, too. “We can’t have another backlog of people waiting for permission to go to a federally qualified clinic in a region,” the former House speaker told reporters last week.
What has changed to ignite this urgency that was missing in action for years in which the VA’s sad history of disservice to veterans has been so painfully documented?
Part of it has been recent disclosures that whistle-blowers have said that at the Phoenix VA hospital and many others, officials had been using secret double lists to conceal that veterans were not being treated within the 14-day limit mandated by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s department.
And part of it surely is that the latest demands for reforms have been led by Republicans who used the VA crisis as a new reason to attack President Obama’s job performance. Yes, McCain did just that. In previous years of documented VA incompetence, Democrats didn’t rush with similar zeal to blast President George W. Bush or demand the firing of his VA secretaries. Not even when VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, a former Republican National Committee chairman, pooh-poohed a 2006 report that 40 percent of veterans who needed individual counseling for post-traumatic stress were forced into group sessions instead, by insisting: “We’re dealing with it with great excellence.” Indeed, veterans might be better off today if Democrats had been more combative on this back then.
Interestingly, it turns out the latest VA scandal of secret double waiting lists isn’t really new. Back in 2012, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that surfaced the scandalous VA conduct but was all but overlooked by the news media — indeed even congressional watchdogs didn’t bark. Perhaps that was because the true outrage was obscured by the GAO’s government-speak (which we will mercifully omit). But tucked into it was a brief disclosure:
“For example, three schedulers changed the desired date based on appointment availability; this would have resulted in a reported wait time that was shorter than the patient actually experienced.”
And that, we now know, turned out to be the VA’s secret recipe for cooking the books.
Martin Schram is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune. Email: email@example.com.