Editor's note: the following opinion was submitted by State Sen. John Albers of Roswell.
You cannot watch or read the news these days without hearing of a high-ranking federal scandal. Within a few months of each other, explosive headlines blew the lid off massive corruption taking place on the federal government’s watch. From the breach in national security at our U.S. Embassy in Benghazi to the IRS’ intentional targeting of conservative groups, the federal government continues to amass more power with little to no accountability.
These scandals have only further erupted as recent reports have surfaced about the lack of accessibility and medical care for our nation’s veterans. After numerous complaints of medical malfeasance and a massive backlog of appointments at Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities in Phoenix, Arizona, the Inspector General of the Veterans Health Care Administration launched an independent investigation into the matter; releasing an independent review of ‘patient wait times, scheduling practices and patient deaths.’
The Inspector General’s report found that waiting times for a primary care appointment was approximately 115 days. To put that in perspective, veterans would have to wait almost 4 months – or 1/3 of the year – just to see a doctor.
Unfortunately, the report only gives us a small glimpse of what transpired behind closed doors. At the time of the report, 1,700 veterans seeking medical treatment were not even included on the Phoenix Health Care System’s (HCS) official electronic waiting list. The report also identified a group of 1,400 veterans whose names were registered, but not yet scheduled for a primary care appointment.
To make matters worse, the Inspector General is currently investigating top-level VA personnel to determine whether scheduling practices were compromised. Some of these allegations include deleting, manipulating or willfully neglecting to account for thousands of appointments. These actions may have potentially led to the deaths of over 40 veterans who were waiting for medical services under the VA’s watch.
According to the report, “A direct consequence of not appropriately placing veterans on electronic waiting lists is that the Phoenix Health Care System leadership significantly understated the time new patients waited for their primary care appointment in their FY 2013 performance appraisal accomplishments, which is one of the factors considered for awards and salary increases.” If this proves true, these actions would suggest criminal intent and should be prosecuted by the fullest extent of the law. It is unconscionable to imagine that our military heroes lost their lives fighting for health care while the VA’s top leadership was padding their wallets with bonuses.
Our veterans should not survive long tours serving overseas only to come home and lose their lives waiting to see a doctor. These courageous men and women have already risked their lives on the front lines of battle and should be given top priority to receive quality, affordable health care. Why is it that our nation will gladly dole out millions on entitlement programs, yet neglect to protect the very people who defend this freedom?
Now, you may be wondering how an isolated incident in Phoenix has implications on the entire system as a whole? After thorough review, the Inspector General’s Office has reason to believe the scheduling fraud and mismanagement of VA resources is systemic. As a result, 42 VA clinics across the nation are now being investigated to ensure veterans are receiving the appropriate medical care.
Soldiers eat, live and work by a code of honor and willingly give up everyday luxuries that we often take for granted. When many American families are enjoying a warm home cooked meal, soldiers are scarfing down a Meal, Ready-to-Eat –most commonly referred to as a MRE – and praying that MRE is not their last. These brave souls do not serve in foreign lands for the pleasantries – they do it to preserve the American way of life.
As a result of their dedicated service on the battlefield, American veterans often have unique health care needs that solicit specialized support. Many come back from active duty with life-altering injuries or require treatment for a variety of post-traumatic stress disorders. It is simply unacceptable for these men and women to have their names forgotten while the private sector could offer veterans’ shorter wait times and improved care. If services cannot be rendered immediately at the VA, a private care provider could be enlisted to deliver medical services and be reimbursed at a later date. This could significantly reduce wait times and decrease the likelihood that veterans will lose their lives waiting for treatment.
While eliminating the VA may not be the solution, we must analyze other solutions if the VA is unable to get the job done. In the military, soldiers are court marshaled for avoiding the duties they promised to fulfill. Why should the VA be any different? If individuals are not performing satisfactory or committing criminal actions, they should be held accountable.
Perhaps another option is to look for other avenues to provide veterans with easier accessibility to health care. Right now, preliminary action is being taken by some members of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to press for legislation that enables veterans to seek medical treatment from private providers or a local military base. These solutions are still in infancy stages, but they could be the answer to failing government-run health care programs.
While there is no perfect system, the failure of the VA to provide health care to a small subset of the population is not only alarming, but potential foreshadowing of government-run health care in America. The VA is responsible for administrating health care for nearly 6.5 million veterans annually – a small number compared to the millions of Americans that are currently being enrolled in Obamacare. Only time will tell, but hopefully this isn’t a sign of future health care rationing, scheduling delays and rampant corruption within the system.
Soldiers understand that sacrificing their lives overseas is a real possibility, but it is our duty as American citizens to ensure these brave men and women receive the care they deserve when they return home. Nothing can be more tragic than a soldier who valiantly served his country to give up his or her life waiting for medical care.
On the battlefield, medical and emergency personnel stand willing and ready for service in every platoon, battalion and fleet. At home, health care is much more of a distant memory of battlefield’s past where health care was readily accessible at the nearest medical tent. It is time the VA removes the barricades it has erected and works to build a bridge to a stronger future for our veterans. There are no excuses – the time to act is now!