Evidence of the barbaric treatment of America’s retired armed forces personnel in the Veterans Health Administration system grows by the hour. Atop word last month that 40 vets died awaiting care in Phoenix, Sunday’s Dayton Daily News, reported that “The number of dead veterans could total more than 1,100 from 2001 through the first half of 2013” due to faulty treatment and waiting endless months for VA medical care. West Virginia VA psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Moxness told Fox & Friends Monday that two of her new patients committed suicide while waiting months for second visits.
Meanwhile, VA personnel in 19 states reportedly have been implicated so far in the growing scandal. In several of these states, their public “records” fraudulently depict smooth operations and guarantee their performance bonuses. Secret documents, however, reflect the actual delays that are costing veterans their lives. As this scandal has exploded in recent weeks, lackadaisical VA officials suddenly have mustered the energy to shred these papers and conceal proof of their despicable, likely criminal neglect.
As this horror show unfolds daily, where is the commander-in-chief?
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told CBS’ Face the Nation that Obama is “madder than hell” about this disgrace. But his rage must have triggered laryngitis. That’s the only explanation for Obama’s nearly Trappist silence on this catastrophe.
“The moment we heard about the allegations around these 40 individuals who had died in Phoenix, I immediately ordered the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Shinseki, to investigate. We also have an IG investigation taking place. And so we take the allegations very seriously,” Obama told Fox News Channel’s Ed Henry at an April 28 news conference in Manila. Since then, Obama has uttered not a single word about this rapidly burgeoning calamity.
In a tough move, Obama secured the resignation of VA under secretary of health Dr. Robert A. Petzel.
Not so fast.
Journalists quickly and easily discovered that Petzel had already announced his coming retirement last September. Obama’s supposedly swift and decisive action turns out, predictably, to be symbolic smoke before a meaningless mirror.
Elsewhere, dodgy VA officials have been placed on “administrative leave.” This sounds ominous, but it’s synonymous with “paid vacation.” In Durham, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla., and perhaps other VA facilities, employees suspected of wrongdoing are receiving their salaries without even coming to work.
How cruel and unusual.
Sharon Helman, director of Phoenix’s notorious VA Health Care System, is enjoying her administrative leave. This is atop her $9,345 bonus and her $196,000 base salary. Helman’s former patients included Navy veteran Thomas Breen. He was undergoing bladder cancer when he entered the Phoenix VA’s emergency room last September complaining of blood in his urine. A medical chart in his family’s possession shows that a doctor sent him home and instructed him to return in “one week” due to his condition’s “urgency.” But Breen could not score a follow-up appointment with either a primary physician or a urologist. So, he died – as 39 others in Phoenix allegedly did, waiting for attention.
By now, Obama should have fired – outright – those who maintained these secret wait lists and directed Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute them for fabricating statements to conceal this toxic sloth.
Obama should have declared by now that FBI agents had stormed VA hospitals across America to secure these bogus books and scrutinize them for proof of anti-veteran crimes.
Obama should have ordered all VA employees to preserve all of these records, under threat of prosecution.
Obama should have announced the cancellation of all pending and future bonuses for inept and corrupt VA staffers and demanded that they repay the bonuses that they received while botching their responsibilities and abusing their power.
And Obama should have promised that within one week, he would send Congress a concrete proposal to end this inexcusable backlog. One wise idea would let veterans request vouchers to purchase their own private health plans, so they can receive prompt care. Veterans who need colonoscopies or mammograms, for instance, should be free to secure them at civilian facilities. This will help the VA focus on veterans with battle-related injuries, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and other specific conditions in which the VA specializes.
Obama’s quietude might be slightly understandable if he were as stunned into speechlessness as are many Americans now learning about this fiasco. But Obama lacks even this excuse. He was well aware of this problem at least 17 months before he inherited it from President G. W. Bush.
Then-U.S. Senator Obama (D., Ill.) told the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 21, 2007: “No veteran should have to fill out a 23-page claim to get care or wait months, even years, to get an appointment at the VA.”
In a story headlined “He KNEW!” the Washington Times‘ Jim McElhatton revealed Sunday that outgoing Bush administration officials warned the incoming Obama-Biden transition staff about the Veterans Health Administration’s grave woes.
“This report and prior reports indicate that the problems and causes associated with scheduling, waiting times, and wait lists are systemic throughout the VHA,” Team Bush notified Team Obama in late 2008. “Audits of outpatient scheduling and patient waiting times completed since 2005 have identified noncompliance with the policies and procedures for scheduling, inaccurate reporting of patient waiting times, and errors” in electronic waiting lists. The briefing added: “This is not only a data integrity issue in which VHA reports unreliable performance data; it affects quality of care by delaying – and potentially denying – deserving veterans timely care.”
Well into his tenure, Obama said three Veterans Days ago (11/11/11): “Let us commit ourselves to keep making sure that our veterans receive the care and benefits that they have earned.”
So, Obama is “madder than hell” about this catastrophe, even though he has known about it for nearly seven years, was reminded of it as he prepared to be inaugurated, and addressed it on Veterans Day 2011. Since then, Obama has failed to clean up this hand-me-down mess. Instead, he has let it metastasize into, literally, a terminal illness.
Rather than action, leadership, or even timely words of concern, Obama offers the sound of crickets, punctuated by zany events. Last Friday, he visited a local burger stand and goofed around childishly with its employees.
And on Monday afternoon, as the VA scandal entered full meltdown mode, Obama found time to practice with a Little League baseball team en route to – what else? – a Washington fundraiser.
Obama – the detached, disengaged, and increasingly clownish skipper of the U.S.S. Leviathan – is AWOL from the bridge, yet again. He dozes in his bunk as peacefully as Captain Joseph Hazelwood slumbered on March 24, 1989, while the Exxon Valdez drifted aimlessly through Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
A version of this piece previously appeared on National Review Online.