Back at the turn of the 21st century, when he left Washington to become president of the New School university in New York City, former Senator Bob Kerrey learned a little something about the ethos of Veterans Affairs. Kerrey, a Medal of Honor recipient who lost part of a leg in Vietnam, needed to get his home address changed. He had called his bank and settled the matter in 10 minutes. He called the VA and spoke to a hostile and not very helpful receptionist. He spoke to the receptionist’s supervisor, who told him, “You’re going to have to come in.” So Kerrey went to the VA office in New York. The receptionist again wasn’t very helpful. Kerrey pointed out that he was only talking about an address change. The receptionist said, “Talk to one of them,” pointing to customer “service” employees sitting at desks labeled A and B. Desk C was vacant. Kerrey went to Desk A, where he was told, “That’s handled by Desk C.” Kerrey asked when the occupant of Desk C was returning. “I don’t know,” said Desk A. Kerrey went over and sat at Desk C for a long while, and then a longer while. He spoke to the supervisor, who had no idea where Desk C was and told Kerrey, “Come back tomorrow.”
“You gotta be kidding,” Kerrey said, or perhaps yelled. It took 12 days to get his address changed.
I’ve heard far more serious VA horror stories ad nauseam in recent years. I know of at least one young Marine who committed suicide while waiting—months—for his medical records to be transferred from Los Angeles to Houston. I’ve also heard stories of heroic treatment performed by devoted VA doctors, nurses and counselors, but those often occurred after their patients endured a Kafka-esque struggle with the VA’s bureaucratic gate-keepers. You might expect that the system, which is staffed largely by older veterans, would have adapted with alacrity to the crisis posed by the wave of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the past decade. But the VA’s response has been stagnation, and worse. It is now clear that there was a conscious, and perhaps criminal, effort to camouflage the time veterans had to wait for service in Phoenix and at other VA facilities. It is alleged that 40 veterans died waiting for service in Phoenix; whether or not that proves accurate, we’re facing a moral catastrophe.
The question is, How do we change this situation? The simple answer is leadership, which is why some have called (as I did last year) for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. By all accounts, Shinseki is a fine man who has spent nearly six years lost in the system. An effective leader would have gone to Phoenix as soon as the scandal broke, expressed his outrage, held a town meeting for local VA outpatients and their families—dealt with their fury face-to-face—and let it be known that he was taking charge and heads were going to roll. Instead, Shinseki intoned the words “mad as hell” at a congressional hearing. And White House chief of staff Denis McDonough said the President was “madder than hell” about the situation. Does anyone actually find this convincing?
The President cares deeply about the troops; he visits the wounded in the hospitals all the time; it’s just not his style to make a public deal of it. But he has been sadly ineffective on the veterans–health issue. The benefits system is still rigged against recent veterans, who go to the end of the line with their claims. Five years ago, Obama promised a unified electronic records system so that a soldier’s medical history would follow him or her seamlessly from active duty to the VA, but it still hasn’t been implemented because of trench warfare between the Pentagon and the VA. More than a billion dollars has been spent on the project. A senior Administration official told me a year ago that a solution was weeks away; now the Administration is promising a new system by 2016. The President could have solved this problem yesterday, by cracking heads—and selecting either the existing VA or Pentagon electronic records system. (Believe it or not, the VA system is pretty effective but not up-to-date.)
The problem of bureaucratic stagnation at the VA (and throughout the rest of the government) could be addressed as well. Think about the lazy clerks Bob Kerrey faced. Why were they so callous? Because under the existing, antiquated civil-service system, they face practically zero threat of being fired. The President could ask for a temporary waiver of civil-service rules to clean up the mess at the VA, but that seems politically impossible. Government accountability is a popular mantra—but you can’t have accountability unless everyone, including Desk C, is held to account.
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