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Treatment of vets is shameful – still

Reports that some Veterans Affairs hospitals are gaming the system to cover up long waiting times “are shameful but not surprising. Too many at the VA seem to focus on appearing to help veterans, rather than making sure veterans really get help.”

That comes from an Observer editorial published on Sept. 13, 2007. It’s unconscionable that we must write the exact same thing nearly seven years later.

Evidence suggests that VA employees in at least eight states, including North Carolina, have manipulated records to hide the long delays many veterans face in getting care. A clinic director alleges that as many as 40 veterans in Phoenix died while waiting to be seen. Two VA employees in Durham were put on leave last week, suspected of “inappropriate scheduling practices.”

Republicans, and some Democrats, are criticizing President Obama for the situation, and rightly so. Obama’s misstep, though, was not that he allowed such a vital department to deteriorate. The VA has been a bureaucratic tangle for decades, as that 2007 editorial suggests. Obama’s failure is that on the campaign trail in 2008, he promised to fix it. Instead, things have gotten worse.

Part of that stems from an important change: The Obama administration made it easier for vets to receive treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and exposure to Agent Orange. But the administration and Congress did little to prepare the VA to handle the resulting spike in claims. National Journal reports that in 2009, there were about 423,000 claims, with 150,000 pending for more than four months. By 2012, those numbers had shot up to 883,000 claims and 586,000 backlogged cases.

Everyone is very mad about this. Obama is “madder than hell,” chief of staff Denis McDonough assured the public on Face the Nation last weekend. VA chief Eric Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that he is “mad as hell.”

You think they’re mad? The people who really deserve to be mad are the thousands of veterans who serve their country and then struggle to get basic medical care when they come home. They should also be mad that their president learns of the problem by watching CNN, and that their veterans affairs secretary, Shinseki, sits passively, making vague promises to take this seriously once all the facts are in. Neither he nor Obama has offered specific, structural solutions. (Nor has Congress, which has been among the loudest critics.)

May is Military Appreciation Month. The N.C. legislature on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution honoring the men and women of the armed forces. That’s real nice. But to really honor veterans, President Obama and Congress need to tackle fundamental and systemic problems at the VA – now.

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