These phony ‘fixes’ won’t help vets
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are rushing to pass a bill they claim will rescue vets from deadly wait lists. But behind the kudos for bipartisanship, the truth lurks.
This bill won’t speed up health care for ailing vets. The fine print sabotages vets wanting to go outside the Veterans Administration system.
Last week, Sanders, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, and McCain, a former POW, used the drama of the D-Day anniversary to announce their compromise. “We are talking about a system that must be fixed,” said McCain.
Sorry, senator. Your bill leaves vets’ fates in the hands of dishonest VA bureaucrats.
On Monday, the VA’s own internal investigation revealed that 57,436 newly enrolled veterans are facing wait times of at least 90 days for a first appointment, and 63,869 vets who signed up with the VA in the past decade never got an appointment. At least 23 vets died while waiting.
Worse, three-quarters of VA facilities manipulated waiting lists or kept dummy books. That’s not isolated corruption, it’s pervasive.
The Sanders/McCain bill will let it continue. Yes, the bill creates a new “Choice Card” permitting veterans to access civilian care if they either live 40 miles or more from a VA hospital or can’t get an appointment within the VA’s definition of an acceptable wait time.
But the devil is in the details.
Sanders opposed the Choice Card until the final negotiations, and in the actual bill he got language that will make it almost impossible to actually use the card.
Sec. 301 says vets seeking civilian care have to get a letter from the VA secretary confirming that a VA appointment isn’t available. Good luck getting that letter. Some vets have called and e-mailed their local VA for six months or more without getting any response.
Hurdle No. 2 comes at the non-VA doctor’s office.
The Choice Card tells the doctor: “Please call the Department of Veterans Affairs phone number specified on this card to ensure that treatment has been authorized.” Good luck getting that call answered.
To top it all off, the Sanders/McCain bill stipulates that the choice-card program will end in two years — probably only a few hours after the VA finally gets the hotline set up and issues the cards.
In another empty gesture at reform, the bill also requires the VA to publish wait times on its Web site. That’s a white flag, not a reform: Posting the wait times does nothing to reduce them. Just ask the Brits and Canadians who’ve long seen hospital wait times printed in their newspapers.
Nothing in the bill puts vets in the driver’s seat. They still can’t escape the VA without active help from VA staff.
But these unionized bureaucrats have resisted past projects to help vets get civilian care, and no doubt will use the same dirty tricks again.
Sanders and McCain claim their bill would punish employees for such misconduct. But the bill is toothless: Sec. 408 says that any employee caught falsifying data on wait times or the quality of care will be subject to “a penalty the secretary considers appropriate after notice and opportunity for a hearing.”
No mandatory minimums.
Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) asked top VA deputy Robert Petzel (now resigned) whether someone caught lying about wait times should be fired.
Petzel replied “I don’t know whether that’s the appropriate level of punishment or not.”
And what if the secretary does try to fire someone? Current civil-service protections make that nearly impossible. The bill claims to shorten the process, but has a loophole (Sec. 409) that would allow it to drag on indefinitely.
VA managers already are circling the wagons.
Federal Managers Association President Patricia Niehaus insists, “It is unacceptable for anyone in Congress to call for a streamlining of firing high-level, or any level of federal employee, based simply on appearances or uninvestigated accusations.”
Uninvestigated? There have been numerous investigations in the last decade. Nevertheless, the McCain/Sanders bill calls for not one but two commissions — with members getting per diem salaries, staff, and travel expenses — to report to Congress. That’s what Congress does. It holds hearings. It doesn’t solve problems.
Sadly, that still leaves vets, who risked their lives for our freedom, trapped in a corrupt system.