Finally appearing on Wednesday before White House reporters to address the growing Veteran Affairs (VA) scandal, the normally glib President Obama stumbled noticeably, probably for the three reasons.
First, as a deeply committed ideological liberal, the president is totally lost at sea addressing any problem that could not be solved simply by throwing billions of dollars at it. Hey, we increased VA’s budget so what are all those old guys complaining about?
Second, never having managed anything larger than a lemonade stand, the president doesn’t grasp basic management concepts in which macro-level words and promises don’t always translate into micro-level actions. C’mon now, haven’t the first lady and Jill Biden always sympathized with veterans and their families? Isn’t that enough?
Finally, with his historical legacy now synonymous with health care, the president was viscerally uncomfortable with the one aspect of the VA crisis he understood most clearly: If big government couldn’t adequately care for a few million veterans, then how on earth would it cope with several hundred million new Obamacare signatories? OK, so assuming the website actually works, how will millions of ordinary Americans react if they have to deal with phantom waiting lists and lost records?
While the president seemed tentative and uncertain, Democratic Rep. David Scott of Georgia was forthright, articulate and downright angry. Standing in the well of the House, Mr. Scott sounded like a crusading Southern preacher recounting the sins of the VA leadership: “The buck stops at the top.” Decrying the 5,600 veteran suicides taking place every year on the administration’s watch, Mr. Scott recounted that four of those suicides had occurred in Atlanta’s VA hospital, all due to a lack of management despite official denials: “They told a damned lie.” Pronouncing himself “so disappointed” with Mr. Obama’s recent remarks, the congressman – a Wharton business school graduate – called for urgency and partnership in addressing the currently dysfunctional system of veterans’ health care.
Urgency and partnership should be the compass points in addressing an issue that can unite the 99 percent of Americans who do not serve in uniform – but still care about veterans. Readers of this newspaper may remember my story of how, after suffering three life-threatening strokes, I was fortunate enough to meet Dr. David Friedman. A legend in the San Antonio medical community, Dr. Friedman paid a memorable visit to my hospital room. “Colonel,” he said, “I’ve done some genetic testing. Your clotting factors are 80 times higher than average, which is why you’re having these strokes.” Five stroke-free years later, we still get together every month – all of it paid for by Tricare, the public-private partnership chosen by most veterans. My life was probably saved by choosing Tricare over a VA hospital, where my name might still be on a waiting list.
Other veterans tell similar stories. One of my friends, a retired two-star general, also chose Tricare when confronted by a serious health problem. He was forced to deal with a VA hospital simply to obtain a disability certificate. He tells about waiting for two hours in a room with 15 other Vietnam vets, all of them eager to trade war stories from their youth. “But it was clear to me that all those great gentlemen were very sick. They wanted care. I just wanted a piece of paper.” All of them were forced to deal with VA bureaucrats who claimed to have no computers, no telephones and no ability to help because of health information privacy rules, which they cited at length. It nearly took Cabinet-level intervention to get my friend his certificate. No word on those Vietnam vets.
Bill Harmon, a distinguished Arkansas veteran, points out that VA hospitals are located where veteran population densities are highest. The Tricare system is often the better alternative but still requires the voluntary participation of doctors who can tolerate government paperwork and delayed reimbursements. Because the Arkansas National Guard has seen repeated deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, returning veterans had to be “transported over a hundred miles to VA hospital facilities,” said Mr. Harmon, or to a Tricare physician who would treat them. “If I were king for a day,” he said, “I would fix Tricare and phase out those [VA] hospitals in need of repair or providing poor service to veterans.”
I agree, and I’m betting that Rep. Scott would join us, appreciating the need for partnership with the private medical sector. None of us are willing to accept the VA as it is currently organized, led and staffed. For President Obama, there is a much simpler message: Either reform veterans’ health care or, as the saying goes, “Let Rome beware the anger of the legions.” And of the voters who once sent us off to war.
A version of this piece previously appeared on Washington Times.