Topics: Veterans Affairs

In Washington, resignations aren't reform

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Veterans Affairs,John McCain,Tom Coburn,Eric Shinseki

With Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on his way out, talk in Washington will shift to speculation about his permanent successor. What should be intensifying instead is the work of reform.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and other congressional reformers were reluctant to jump on the resignation bandwagon because they know resignations don't guarantee change.

With a bureaucracy as dysfunctional as the VA, merely replacing the secretary will be as transformative as a Cold War-era shake up in the Politburo.

And many politicians, particularly those up for re-election, may have also had a more base motivation. In moments of crisis, politicians love to do something big (calling for a resignation) that will give them cover for avoiding the task of doing something important (fixing the VA).

The danger is that Shinseki's departure will end the reform debate before it starts. That would be a tragedy for taxpayers and veterans.

In fact, the resignation focus has already diminished this week’s far more important news, an inspector general’s interim report that described in excruciating detail “systematic” problems at the VA that have caused veterans across the country to die while waiting on secret lists for treatment.

Fortunately, some in Congress are working to address the real problem. As early as next week, Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., Richard Burr, R-NC, and Coburn will introduce a bill based on a simple concept.

Instead of forcing veterans to drive half way across their state - where they then have to navigate a cruel and arbitrary bureaucracy - their proposal will allow veterans to walk across the street and access care outside the VA system in their own communities.

Under this plan, the VA would still pick up the tab. Veterans would simply hand providers a coverage card that will give them the buying power to access care.

The only place this proposal will be controversial is Washington where some interest groups and politicians will see it as an existential threat to the VA industrial complex, or as a reason to have an ideological identity crisis.

Some will argue more funding is the answer. Others are already whispering that this proposal is a scary “privatization” or “voucher scheme” designed to “dismantle” the VA. But these concerns are baseless and overblown.

In terms of the budget argument, underfunding is hardly VA's problem. Since 2009, VA funding has grown three times faster than inflation, from $47.8 billion to $63.4 billion.

Also during this time, VA officials received generous bonuses. At the Phoenix office, for instance, an investigation by the organization Open the Books discovered officials there received lavish bonuses and even found funds to pay interior decorators and designers.

The VA has also spent $489 million to upgrade conference rooms, buy draperies and purchase new office furniture over the last four years.

What has been lacking are not dollars – or new draperies – but creative and compassionate solutions and the political courage to turn those ideas into reform.

As for ideology, is this plan about freedom, choice and dignity? Absolutely. In America, serving one’s country should not be a pre-existing medical condition.

Congress should allow our soldiers and veterans to enjoy the freedom they fought for. After all, we didn’t ask our soldiers in past wars to defeat socialism abroad only to endure it at home.

As the horror stories in the VA system mount – from preventable deaths, to long waits, to the deliberate destruction of records – the status quo is not just unacceptable; it is reprehensible.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Congress, administrations from both parties and interest groups have all participated in a conspiracy of complacency and neglect.

What will break this cycle of dysfunction is not resignations but real reform. In Washington, resigning is easy, but legislating is hard. It’s long past time for Congress and the administration to do the hard work of problem-solving at the VA.

John Hart is communications director for U.S. Senator Tom Coburn and co-author with the Oklahoma Republican of two books.
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