Charlie Harper: Vets deserve better than this VA

June 10, 2014 

A couple of weeks ago we observed Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the name of our country and what we stand for. Last week, we observed the 70th anniversary of D-Day, perhaps the most pivotal battle involving American forces of the last century. Thousands died during that campaign. Tens of thousands more lived to continue and liberate Europe. Those who came home reinvested their efforts into making our country what it is today. We also invested in them, with programs such as the GI Bill and the Veterans Administration. Such has been the history to those who have served.

We sent them to places named Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many others around the globe. For more than a generation those who have gone have done so voluntarily. But they do so with a promise from us for certain things. Pay, benefits, medical care during service, a specific retirement plan, combat pay bonuses … and, when they leave the service, benefits from the Veterans Administration.

For much of the last century we've largely kept our promises to veterans. We generally as a country recognize that we didn't initially treat our Vietnam era vets well enough. Frankly, we still have some making up to do there.

With the end of the Vietnam War also came the end of the draft - and with that, a lot of the personal closeness that many of us had with the U.S. military. Fewer of us now have military service in our personal history, or even close family members serving. This sort of detachment has allowed us to view veterans and the promises that we've made to them as less and less personal. As such, the VA, to many, is just another government agency.

To the veterans who rely on the VA, it's more than just another bureaucracy that occasionally makes headlines. It's all about maintaining any sense of quality of life. For many, it's about life itself.

Because of that, the recent headlines about the widespread cover-up over wait times and care our veterans are experiencing cannot be shrugged off as just another political scandal or exercise in government ineptness. If we allow that to happen, then we are missing the opportunity not only to fix the problem properly, but also to examine what this scandal says about us as a country.

We've known that there were problems at the VA for quite some time. Recent scandals at the Atlanta and Augusta VA were treated as isolated incidents. Clearly, the problems are systemic. As such, a Cabinet-level secretary has resigned. Resignations don't usually solve problems. Rather, they are merely a sign that a problem has been acknowledged.

These problems will not be fixed overnight. Talk to veterans who rely on the VA and they'll tell you about constant turnover with doctors. They'll talk about inability to schedule an appointment with a specialist for months if not years - and then likely to have those appointments delayed or deferred multiple times. They'll tell you that no one in the system has an incentive for it to work well, or to deliver patients the best care possible. They'll tell you the system just doesn't work.

It's fair to question whether the VA system is even required to fulfill its mission, or if those who depend on it would be better served with insurance plans that would allow them to find the private medical providers of their choice. If nothing else, those depending on the VA should be allowed to see private physicians at the VA's expense if the VA is unable to see and/or treat them in a timely manner.

The problems are broad, and the solutions must be transformative and comprehensive. This isn't something we can allow to become yet another log on the fire of partisan sniping. We must allow the discussion to be bigger than that, because the promise we have made to these folks is bigger than that. It's bigger because of the sacrifices they have made -- and the ultimate sacrifice that each was willing to make -- to allow the rest of us to live "normal" lives free of these worries.

The solution to this problem will ultimately come from political channels. As such, regardless of your party or relationship with your representative or senators, you need to let them know that this is not an issue to be demagogued or used as a partisan weapon. Instead, insist that they roll up their sleeves, work with those on the other side of the aisle and the White House, and get this issue fixed.

How long we let these problems remain will say a lot more about us as a people and the value of our promises than it will about politics or who can score the most points heading into the next election. The clock is already running.

Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.

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