Veterans deserve better

The San Antonio Veterans Hospital is one of several implicated in the scandal of veterans dying on waiting lists.
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Our government treats its military veterans badly. Everybody knows that now. We don’t know what the right people are going to do about it, or even who the right people are. We don’t even know how long this has been going on. But we should know this: what these veterans are enduring (or succumbing to) today, we will endure (or succumb to) tomorrow.

Veterans die on secret waiting lists

We first heard of problems in the Department of Veterans Affairs, when a clerk at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Medical Center told the country about a secret waiting list for patients. According to this clerk, 40 veterans have died on this list. We next word that’s the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Hospital was not the only hospital where such things happen. Reports came in from the Austin and San Antonio medical centers and other Veterans Affairs hospitals across the country.

Yesterday the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki, testified before the Senate. The best he could say for himself was that he was “mad as hell.” This did not satisfy the Senators, from either political party, who heard him. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said flatly that any clerks or other employees who kept secret waiting list of patients, and otherwise delayed treatment for veterans, belonged in prison.

History of the Veterans Administration/Department

The San Antonio Veterans Hospital is one of several implicated in the scandal of veterans dying on waiting lists.

The Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported License.

The Veterans Medical System has never been a model of efficiency. In the 1980s, when it was a mere administration, your editor trained in Veterans Administration Hospitals in Houston, Texas, and in Nashville, Tennessee. The most efficient offices in these hospitals belonged to the medical schools that furnished attending physicians, house officers, and medical students.  All records were on paper. When a patient came to the hospital, a message went out to all wards and offices to look for his medical record and return it to the ward where he would stay. But never once did any rumor emerge about inefficiencies like the ones that brought Secretary Shinseki before the Senate yesterday. If anything like this were happening in the days of the old Veterans Administration, its director would have lost his job. The same would hold for any Secretary of Veterans Affairs, after the VA became a Cabinet-level department. So we may assume that the problems in the Veterans Affairs Department, already chronic and moderately severe, became life-threatening during the Obama administration.

What this means

One obvious criticism of the VA department is it can find money to turn a dishonorably discharged veteran, who cannot make up his mind about his/her/ its sex, into a woman. But this same department cannot treat our veterans with the respect they have earned, or even with as much respect as one can find in a city hospital.

But the real problem is worse. The Veterans Affairs Medical Systems is one of the world’s largest health maintenance organizations. It is the only model for top-down socialized medicine in this country. If single-payer medical care could ever work, one would think those in charge in the Veterans Affairs Department would make it work there. And if any class of patients deserve this kind of treatment by the government, it would be military veterans. It is part of the contract they enter into by joining services where dying is part of the job.

instead, our veterans suffer the worst nightmare anyone has ever reported or invented about socialized medicine. Namely, that patients died while waiting to see a doctor. This rumor persists about the Canadian single-payer system. We hear of patients not wanting to wait any longer, and coming to America for treatments they simply cannot get in their own country. One would never expect anything like that to happen to any patients in America. But it has now happened. And if those who designed the so-called Affordable Care Act have their way, all doctors, and all hospitals, will be part of a vast national medical care system that will take its cue from the Department of Veterans Affairs.  If so, we cannot be sure that civilian patients will not begin to die on waiting lists, as several military veterans have done.

So our military veterans are the canaries in the mine. Few of the Republican Senators who heard Secretary Shinseki speak, and even fewer of the Democratic Senators, have even thought about this. But the American people certainly should think about it, especially as they go to vote for new Senators and Representatives this fall.

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