May 29 12:20 PM

Veterans Affairs: What is the real scandal?

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and VA Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

It feels like official Washington finally has a scandal with legs. And perhaps justifiably so.

Calls for the resignation of secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki have started to grow louder. The Wednesday release of the inspector general’s report showed widespread gaming of the system in an effort to hide long waiting lists for medical care, and prompted a number of Democrats in both the House and Senate to join the larger group of Republicans demanding Shinseki’s head.

Five Democratic Senators — Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Udall of Colorado and John Walsh of Montana — joined John McCain, R-Ariz., in asking Shinseki to step down. All of the Democrats are up for re-election this year. Walsh and McCain are the Senate’s only combat vets.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has not joined that chorus, but is offering legislation that would make it easier to discipline and fire VA officials (Sanders’s bill differs from the House version in that it attempts to safeguard against wholesale political purges). Both houses of Congress and the White House are talking of ways to provide private care to veterans not able to see VA doctors in a timely fashion, with legislation in the House moving most aggressively toward privatizing VA services, pushing vets and the money needed to provide care more quickly to private providers.

It’s a delightful development for a GOP that saw itself losing traction on what it thought was going to be a key election year issue, the Affordable Care Act (ACA … Obamacare, if you must). Sound farfetched? Cue the meme machine in 3 … 2 … 1 ….

Americans need to take a close look at the VA — and not only because of their concern about poor treatment of our wounded warriors. It is the prototype for Obamacare. The intent behind Obamacare is to completely centralize control over health care, and thus turn American health care into one huge Veterans’ Administration.

OK, that’s no one official, not an elected, not a GOP surrogate, just a P.R. blast on an email list from a private physician. Leave aside that his explanation bears little resemblance to either the VA or the system set up under the ACA, “Obamacare is VA-style treatment for all” sounds like a heck of a sound bite. (Indeed, Rush Limbaugh and the conservative American Spectator have said much the same in recent days.)

But what about the actual scandal? The 14 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan have massively increased demands on VA services, medical, mental, occupational and otherwise. The budgets for the Department of Veterans Affairs have not kept pace.

The Department’s 2015 budget request was nearly $164 billion, a 6.5 percent increase over last year. The discretionary portion, which is largely allocated to health care, is $68 billion, up roughly 3 percent.

But America has deployed more than 2.3 million people to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11/01, and more than half of those are now out of the service and eligible for VA care. Afghanistan alone has produced more claims for disability than any other U.S. war.

The smaller fighting force and the multiple deployments have increased the need for medical and mental health services among those who served, and that demand will actually increase as time goes by. Need for medical services is expected to peak 30 to 40 years after deployment; by that time, the cost of caring for Iraq and Afghanistan vets should top $1 trillion.

The "what" of the current is scandal is the falsification of records to downplay a backlog of patients at an Arizona VA medical center (and possibly many others), but the "why" is the acute shortage of facilities and doctors.

In February, legislation that would have helped ease the crunch by adding 27 new medical facilities to the VA system was blocked by a procedural vote in the Senate, 56-41 (60 votes were needed to break the filibuster). All 41 no votes were cast by Republicans, who sided with their leader, Mitch McConnell, Ky., in objecting to the cost.

Sen. Sanders said he plans to reintroduce the legislation next week.

If the VA had all it needed to meet the surge in demand, and the long waits continued, that would be a scandal, and firings and resignations would be expected. If the Veterans Administration does not have what it needs, however, and the government continues to find ways to spend for war, but shortchanges the warriors, then that's a scandal of a whole other order.

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