President Obama is embroiled in two Veterans Affairs scandals: 1) fabricated documents and secret waiting lists for health care, with dozens of veterans dying while waiting for appointments; and 2) waiting lists for disability benefits. The former is now the subject of a criminal investigation opened by the Phoenix office of the FBI just days after the release of a bipartisan letter from 21 U.S. senators to the Department of Justice calling for a criminal investigation.
“Evidence of secret waiting times, falsification of records, destruction of documents, and other potential criminal wrongdoing has appalled and angered the nation, and imperiled trust and confidence in the Veterans Health Administration,” the senators wrote in the letter, which was sent late last week to Attorney General Eric Holder.
“The spreading and growing scale of apparent criminal wrongdoing is fast outpacing the criminal investigative resources of the IG, and the revelations in the interim report only highlight the urgency of involvement by the Department of Justice,” they wrote.
That story was receiving a lot of media attention until the President announced his swap of five members of the Taliban high command for one American deserter; and since then, there has hardly been any coverage of it. It was even being labeled a scandal in the mainstream media, with some arguing that, unlike Benghazi and the IRS, this one was a real scandal. But that was because they could argue that it was a scandal that began during previous administrations, and thus there was no specific blame on Obama’s shoulders.
The other scandal, unresolved disability benefits, has received even far less attention in the news-even though it is also a systemic, long unaddressed problem.
The Obama administration’s inability to address the veterans’ disability backlog is a stain on the reputation of our nation, making it harder for veterans suffering from physical disabilities or PTSD to afford food, shelter, and the comforts of life after service.
But, as Obama misleadingly stated last month, “we launched an all-out war on the disability claims backlog.” His statements are like those about the war on poverty—a lot of rhetoric, but not much movement.
“And in just the past year alone, we’ve slashed that backlog by half,” continued President Obama in his May 21 speech. “Of course, we’re not going to let up, because it’s still too high. We’re going to keep at it until we eliminate the backlog once and for all.”
The disability claims backlog hasn’t been slashed under President Obama; it has only grown. He is able to claim that disability claims have been slashed in half because he is selectively measuring from the point where they skyrocketed to a whopping 611,000 in March 2013.
In contrast, it was reported this week that 57,000 veterans have been waiting more than 90 days to visit a doctor for the first time; and a Veterans Affairs representative has announced that the department has begun contacting these veterans immediately.
But the veteran disability backlog has only gone downhill since Obama took office: “The ranks of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, to 245,000 in December [of 2012]—an increase of more than 2,000 percent,” reported Aaron Glanz for the Center for Investigative Reporting in March 2013.
According to NBC News, a new report called “The Red Tape Report” by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America came out last February. It said that progress had “stalled” at 400,000 veterans waiting. But in April, the numbers dropped a little more, to 344,000, as reported by The Washington Post.
These numbers are still unacceptable. But the media have allowed President Obama to boast about minor achievements that aren’t achievements at all. He is deceiving the public by choosing the highest point and measuring against it, while ignoring his historical numbers—and the real-life impact of his inaction.
Quite frankly, the Veterans Affairs Department is doing a bad job on disability benefits as well as on the health care waiting lists, which are a travesty. At a nighttime House hearing this week, Philip Matkovsky, representing the Veterans Affairs Department, said that he expects the numbers released regarding veteran health care waiting times will only get worse, given that they are still uncovering the true numbers in light of the systemic fudging of scheduling data.
President Obama should not simply have expressed “regret” over former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s resignation—he should have acted much sooner. And he should deal with the disability backlog instead of claiming false victories that use statistical deceit at the expense of our veterans.
It does seem that the Office of Inspector General is getting serious about the health care waiting list scandal. Richard J. Griffin, Acting Inspector General at the Department of Veterans Affairs, said at the June 9th hearing that he had sent criminal investigators to 69 locations besides Phoenix to look into allegations of criminal misconduct, and that he was working with the Department of Justice to determine whether the behavior of some employees merits criminal prosecution.
But some in the media like to explain the veterans health care scandal as Congress’ fault, in terms of a lack of funding. “Unlike Benghazi, the IRS and most other GOP-hyped scandals, the VA scandal is real—and now that they’ve got a big scalp, with the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki, they’re sure to be hungry for more, because that’s just the way that they roll,” wrote Paul Rosenberg for Salon. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans expressed their concern about the VA waiting list scandal.
Rosenberg quoted MSNBC’s far-left commentator Rachel Maddow as saying that “…Veterans are treated more like food stamps, or education, or any other kind of funding that Republicans won’t pass in the House and that they will filibuster in the Senate, because they don’t want to pay for it.”
Rosenberg and Maddow were not only commenting on the VA health care scandal; they were commenting on Congress’ treatment of veterans in general. And they’re off the mark.
As Chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Jeff Miller (R-FL) pointed out at the June 9 hearing, “VA has requested and Congress has funded IT enhancements to include a new scheduling system, which has been dubbed a failure by [the Government Accountability Office (GAO)]. The scheduling replacement project was $127 million over nine years, and it was hindered by management weaknesses.”
And is the disability wait time scandal really a matter of a lack of funding by Congress? As I wrote in 2013, 67 U.S. senators, including 34 Democrats, sent a letter to the President asking him to resolve this travesty. “In the last four years, the number of claims pending for over a year has grown by over 2,000 percent, despite a 40 percent increase in the VA’s budget,” wrote the congressmen at the time. “As a reminder, during this same time period, Congress has given VA everything it has asked for in terms of more funding and more employees; however, this has not eliminated the backlog of claims.” The budget for the VA was $140 billion for 2013, second only to the Department of Defense. Clearly, there is a lack of leadership in this area; how far to the top does it ascend?
And in April, the Republican-dominated House Ways and Means Committee “fully fund[ed] a request from the Obama administration to spend $173 million on a VA benefit management system, which aims to allow for a faster, paperless process to handle disability claims.” (The VA has promised to eliminate its backlog by 2015.)
This ball is in the President’s court, not that of Congress.
“Critics, however, say the shrinking backlog is something of a farce, the result of an administrative maneuver that has not delivered results for the veterans in the backlog, but has instead moved them into a different waiting line,” write two authors for the National Journal. “As of May 10, the VA’s number of appealed claims stood at 274,660, almost 100,000 more than the 174,891 appeals in late 2009.”
The third wait list—the number of appeals for veteran disability benefits—is increasing due to errors in initial processing, according to the National Journal. And, it reports, “Once in the appeals process, veterans can wait in limbo for an average of two and a half years.”
Consider the way that the veterans’ health care providers have dealt with scheduling, for an eye-opening perspective. According to witnesses at the June 9 hearing, a veteran is often “blind scheduled” months out for an appointment, a process that fails to account for a veteran’s personal schedule. Veterans then might receive their notification of an appointment by mail instead of by phone. According to Dr. Debra A. Draper, representing the GAO, this notification letter sometimes arrived after the appointment had been missed; or, if the address was wrong, the veteran may never have received a notification at all. Then these veterans are marked down as no-shows for missing their appointments, which they’ve waited so long for in the first place—wasting everyone’s time and resources.
All of these veteran problems need to be addressed by the President and the media, not just the most sensational one.
This commentary originally appeared at AIM.org and is reprinted here with permission.
Photo credit: Official US Navy Page (Flickr)