Congress can move fast and in a bipartisan way when it wants, and last week it felt an irresistible compulsion to do just that. With rare speed, both the Senate and House passed bills addressing the well-documented troubles at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Being emblematic of patriotism and service, veterans are the one constituency neither party can afford to offend and, besides, there was reason enough to move quickly. A scandal that began in Phoenix over long waits for patients and the false lists that were devised to hide the problem has since revealed dysfunction across the VA system. The FBI office in Phoenix has started a criminal investigation.
An internal audit of the VA also has showed that more than 57,000 new applicants for care had to wait at least three months for initial appointments. An additional 64,000 newly enrolled vets who asked for appointments never got them. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation on May 30 moved the debate from finger-pointing to possible remedial action.
Not related directly to these investigations but symptomatic of the general malaise, Terry G. Wolfe. director of the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System was placed on administrative leave Friday “pending the completion of administrative actions related to the Legionella outbreak” at VA facilities in Oakland and O’Hara, which killed six patients in 2011 and 2012.
The result of last week’s congressional votes should be shorter wait times for thousands of military veterans seeking medical care.
The Senate bill, passed with only three Republican dissenters who feared it was a “blank check,” would authorize payments for outside, private care for veterans over the next two years, as well as hire hundreds of doctors and nurses and lease 26 new health facilities in 17 states and Puerto Rico. Its cost is about $35 billion. The House bill, passed unanimously, would spend about $620 million.
Whatever the final law looks like, it is going to come at a big price — and that suggests a question that Congress in its haste did not consider. If sending veterans to non-VA medical facilities is a good short-time solution to long waiting lists, why is that not a long-term solution as well? The answer, of course, is that the VA is a sacred cow no politician dares to oppose. So instead, the VA health care system — ironically, a much more complete government-run system than Obamacare — is to be made larger and perhaps even more unmanageable.
It’s good that Congress moved quickly to fix the short-term problems at the VA, but it should have spent more time thinking about the future.