Let’s hope the situation at the Department of Veterans Affairs gets just a little bit worse. Not dying worse, but enough to stir President Barack Obama to forceful action.
For Mr. Obama, a crisis isn’t a terrible thing to waste but a hard thing to feel. He’s too smart to get upset, or as senior adviser Valerie Jarrett explained to biographer David Remnick, Mr. Obama has “been bored his whole life.” He’s “just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”
The Affordable Care Act was almost dead before Mr. Obama made fixing it a top priority. What could be more boring than the VA, a sprawling agency with more than 150 hospitals, drowning in paperwork, stuck in the slow lane of the information highway?
A more ordinary intellect might lower himself to the task.
Not that the president hasn’t talked about the VA. In 2007, he called the horrid conditions documented at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a “wake-up call.” Then he hit the snooze button. In 2014, he brought it up in his State of the Union address, and last Sunday, he spoke about veterans in a rousing speech during a surprise visit to the troops in Afghanistan.
But it took three weeks for the president to say he would “not stand for it” if the reports of deaths of veterans waiting for care and the falsification of records to cover up the waits turned out to be true.
A month later, he’s still standing for it. He’s waiting for two investigations of shoddy and delayed care at 26 suspect facilities even though we’re drowning in investigations of the VA dating back at least to 1993. That’s according to a Senate report published in March as part of yet another bill to fix the VA.
Horror stories abound. In September, ABC showed a paralyzed veteran going unfed for three days, rampant hospital infections and nurses told to falsify medical records and hide evidence of malpractice or worse. In May, The Washington Post described the circumstances in which three missing patients at a veterans’ hospital in Salem, Va., were found dead on the grounds within a three-day period.
Money has been thrown at the problem, though not enough, as Republicans have been torn between serving a major constituency and their refusal to spend money. They blocked a vote this year that would have increased health care and education for veterans.
Although the horrendous backlog is down to 572,002 this month from 883,930 in 2012, it’s still maddeningly awful. There are more claims processors — the gateway to care — but claims-processing per employee has gone down. Mr. Obama needs to make digitizing the VA and getting its computers to talk to those at the Pentagon his Manhattan Project.
Unfortunately, the VA is known for patronage and dead wood. A bill just passed in the House would allow the secretary to fire people more easily.
Mr. Obama called VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in, but kept him on until the general resigned Friday, even though members of both parties and the American Legion had been saying for weeks he had to go. A Vietnam vet whose right foot was partially blown off, Gen. Shinseki had also shown bravery when he defied President George W. Bush by calling out his proposed troop deployment to Iraq as way too low. He’s had no such public moment in six years, though. And it was a parody of crisis management that in a flat voice he said he was mad as hell.
Let’s find someone who is. As they might say in Hollywood, “Get me a Jim Webb.”
Mr. Webb is between jobs now, having decided to serve only one term as a U.S. senator from Virginia. A decorated Marine, he’s on tour for his 10th book, “I Heard My Country Calling.”
Jim Webb learned how to run something as secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. He isn’t afraid to speak up to a president. When President Bush asked after Mr. Webb’s son, a Marine lance corporal fighting in Iraq, Mr. Webb said, “That’s between my boy and myself.”
In an interview on CBS, he explained, “There’s nothing harder than having your kid in combat and not knowing, every morning, not knowing whether he’s alive.”
His time in the Senate was devoted to veterans. Mr. Webb drove a modern GI bill through Congress while, as a lawyer, he represented veterans pro bono.
Their current treatment, he says, is a matter of poor leadership, not policy. “One thing they teach you in the Marine Corps,” he said in an interview on Fox, is that “if you have a problem, put your good leaders on the problem.” He could be drafting himself for the job.
As he takes his daily walk through Arlington National Cemetery, where his parents are buried, he reads the headstones of people he will never know but who are “every bit as important to me as my own family.”
Someone that real to you wouldn’t be left unseen and untreated for months while staff covered it up. You wouldn’t order a study; you would go to those 26 suspect facilities, experts in tow, and root out those responsible for the shameful neglect.
The words etched on the VA building — “To care for him who shall have borne the battle” — have devolved into “Thank you for your service,” which gives those of us whose families were spared the fighting something to say to those who fought. But we don’t come close to gratitude.
In his book, Mr. Webb writes, “I and my fellow combat veterans stand on one side of a great impassable divide, with the rest of the world on the other.”
We need to wage a peacetime war across that divide. We promised.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for Bloomberg View.