The scandal of doctored appointment lists in numerous Veterans Affairs hospitals is well-trod ground by now, but no matter how many heads roll at the VA – and heads certainly should – corrections won’t happen until blame is placed squarely on the one group yet to hold itself accountable: Congress, particularly Republicans.
Republicans grandstand mightily about supporting the troops, but their failure to support veterans shows their true character – as shameless hypocrites.
Art Moore, a 14-year Army officer who is challenging GOP Rep. Tom McClintock in today’s 4th Congressional District primary, called for former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign weeks before he actually did so on Friday. “It’s easy to blame Shinseki,” Moore said. “As a leader, you’re ultimately responsible and the fact bad information didn’t get to his desk means his relationship with his chain of command ultimately failed.”
“But,” Moore added, “how different politicians view his resignation says a lot about their political agenda.”
As does past behavior. In March 2003, as we were invading Iraq, House Republicans cut $14 billion from the VA’s budget. Two years later, Bush administration officials assured Americans that the department required no additional resources. Yet by 2007, wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans had so overwhelmed Walter Reed Army Medical Center that hundreds of soldiers were released from hospital beds and placed in nearby hotels and rat-infested apartments leased by the Army, where they waited for treatment an average of 10 months and as long as two years.
Today, the VA covers 8 million veterans. Of its 332,000 employees, 20,000 do nothing but make doctor’s appointments for vets – 230,000 a day, nearly 85 million a year, according to department figures. Since 2011, primary care appointments have increased 50 percent while the department’s staff of primary care physicians has grown by only 9 percent.
President Barack Obama is once again seeking an increase in spending for veterans. He wants a 6.5 percent bump over 2014 levels, to $163.9 billion. In 2012, House Republicans denied a similar request.
Indeed, that year, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., proposed cutting $6 billion annually from the VA budget by canceling enrollment of any veteran whose injury wasn’t service-related, affecting approximately 1.3 million veterans.
Last February, a Senate bill to fund 27 new clinics and more tools for the VA to clear disability claims backlogs was defeated when 41 senators voted against it. They were all Republicans. They tried to use the bill to pass new sanctions against Iran after the U.S. had just reached an agreement on plans to freeze Iran’s nuclear program for six months.
Then-President George W. Bush’s 2009 budget called for cutting and then permanently freezing the VA’s budget. Good timing, there. Cut veterans benefits right when the Iraq War is winding down just so you can balance the federal budget. For what, his legacy?
A 2013 Harvard study found that caring for wounded veterans and repairing a force depleted by more than a decade of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually cost taxpayers $4 trillion to $6 trillion.
Consider that the year we spent the most money in disability benefits for veterans of World War I – which ended in 1918 – was 1969. That is a sobering statistic.
So in the end, the reality Republicans are dodging is this: We started two questionable ground wars, never calculated the cost of caring for soldiers when they came home, and now we’re wondering why veterans can’t get an appointment at a hospital.
Yes, the VA has significant problems, and no, President Obama doesn’t get a pass. But Republicans are the real elephant in this room – pun intended. They regularly trumpet empty patriotic rhetoric and military symbolism on the campaign trail, but their actions speak louder than their words and should make crystal clear why few Republicans have any moral standing to decide on the life or death of anyone, much less sending people off to war.
And those of us who supported those wars are every bit as responsible as the lawmakers who sold us those misadventures. I still receive emails from tea party groups to send care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan. Nary a peep on behalf of veterans. Where are those emails? Where are the emails demanding we call out and publicly humiliate the charlatans who tub-thump for the troops but completely abandon our vets?
Instead, these lawmakers are so obsessed with electoral power that it’s all about blaming Obama for not doing enough to fix the mess they largely helped create. And they cowardly refuse to take responsibility for supporting wars we couldn’t afford that have created millions of veterans, the cost of which they consistently have refused to pay.
But at least we have another committee to investigate Benghazi.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.