Several weeks after the initial reports that more than 40 veterans had died while waiting for care at a medical facility in Arizona, President Obama finally broke his silence on the burgeoning scandal.
“I know that people are angry and want a swift reckoning,” the president said Wednesday, addressing a cascade of claims about excessive wait times for medical appointments, and widespread accusations that Veterans Administration officials cooked the books and falsified hospital records to cover up delayed doctors’ visits and lagging benefits.
“But we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened … And once we know the facts, I assure you — if there is misconduct, it will be punished.”
Misconduct is an understatement. And “if” is a misnomer.
While no one in such situations — least of all the veterans — is well-served by hasty or reflexive words and actions, the allegations of unacceptable patient backlogs and “inappropriate scheduling practices” or “gaming strategies” used to obscure agency failures are well-documented and far from episodic — and the president should have said as much.
It’s true that for decades some VA medical facilities have provided excellent care to many of the millions of retired servicemen and women who have utilized agency services.
And in recent years, the enormous bureaucracy — which boasts the second-largest budget in the federal government — has stretched and strained to provide comprehensive care to the onslaught of new veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom have sustained more serious injuries than those survived by soldiers in previous conflicts.
In spite of its successes, the massive agency also has a long and checkered history of fraud, inefficiency and incompetence — problems that did not begin under or because of Obama administration policies. But they are problems that the president said he would fix.
Instead, it appears they have multiplied. And it appears that the VA can now add conspiracy to its list of sins.
The allegations that point to widespread and systemic “book-cooking” are the most troubling.
What began with a whistleblower in a Phoenix hospital unleashed a torrent of similar accusations from employees and former employees at more than two dozen facilities in states including Colorado, South Carolina, New Mexico and now Texas — a state home to more than 1.7 million veterans.
The charges that wait-time information was manipulated at VA clinics in central Texas and San Antonio caused Texas Senate Veteran Affairs Committee chairwoman Leticia Van de Putte, a Democrat, to speculate that, “The allegations show a pattern that crosses multiple clinics and shows the actions were condoned at a pretty high level.”
Just how high, we don’t know. But someone needs to take responsibility.
Although the president’s reticence to dole out punishments while the scope of the conspiracy remains under investigation by the VA’s Inspector General’s Office is understandable, the sheer lack of accountability rightly causes observers to wonder: Is the agency’s dysfunction beyond repair?
At a time when trust in government institutions has reached a record low, a swift and decisive response — like providing veterans waiting for appointments and procedures with vouchers to seek care at private hospitals, or empowering VA officials with the tools to more easily punish and fire those responsible — might help restore some of the faith that this scandal has eroded so thoroughly.
There is a macabre irony that such accusations of government misconduct harming veterans should erupt in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day, when our nation honors those who have served and fallen in its defense.
And it makes the president’s promise to not just punish those responsible, but to fulfill our nation’s promise to veterans and their families, all the more important.