The recent revelations of continued problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — most associated with a backlog of disability claims — are a huge embarrassment for the Obama administration. The nation's veterans deserve better, and the possibility that the backlog may have contributed to preventable deaths is deeply saddening.
The ongoing effort by the agency's inspector general to identify those VA employees who may have falsified records or encouraged "secret" waiting lists should be pursued with vigor. Those who knowingly violated the law ought to be punished, and those in management who ignored or condoned such behavior should be treated harshly as well.
That said, this ought not be treated as a problem unique to the current administration, a political gotcha for use in campaign ads and then forgotten. If there's one thing Americans should understand about Veterans Affairs is that the place has been a dysfunctional and bureaucratic mess as long as anyone can remember. To suggest that veterans might receive substandard attention from the VA is akin to recognizing that the sun rose this morning and will likely set later in the day.
What veterans don't need is more speech-making or hand-wringing from their elected officials with an eye more on the next election than on the long-term interest of those who served in the nation's military. What's missing from this particular bit of "scandal" is context. President Barack Obama inherited the huge backlog and has actually whittled it down significantly in five years, even as the nation's war efforts produced more veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other impairments seeking help from the VA.
The latest narrative from critics is that the White House has not pursued a remedy for the VA with as much outrage, energy and concern as it attacked problems with healthcare.gov, the Obamacare website. But the reality is not quite so pat. The problems with the website were relatively small in scope and easily identifiable and therefore fixable in a matter of weeks. The VA's inadequacies are quite a bit more complicated and long-standing.
For instance, over the years the VA's claims process has been altered in an effort to make it easier for claims to be made but without providing additional resources to the agency to process them. Meanwhile, those who authorized the conflicts entered into by the Bush administration failed to consider the consequences for the agency as well — a lot more wounded veterans and lot more wounded veterans living longer than ever before.
And it's worth remembering that similar scandals took place in past administrations. The Reagan administration was criticized for failing to accept liability for exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War — as was the Carter administration before it. And the VA under George W. Bush was roundly criticized for a shortfall in funding health care for wounded veterans — a problem illustrated by the abysmal conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
The most important "fix" to be made at the VA was already begun in 2009 Congress when exempted the VA from the budget standoffs and gradually increased the agency's budget. But it takes time to hire and train workers to evaluate and process claims. The effort has yielded results (as has the shrinking presence of the military in Iraq and Afghanistan), but even under the best of circumstances, the backlog isn't expected to be cleared until next year.
That's not to suggest President Obama might not be able to do more, only that he's not the cause of a dilemma with decades-old roots. Nor is Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, which is probably why calls for him to be fired or step down have been relatively mild considering the unpleasant circumstances. U.S. Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and leading voice for the military on the Hill, has cautioned that the VA suffers form a "systemic, cultural" problem and has not asked for the secretary's head.
While the neglect of veterans may be scandalous, what's happened at the VA is not surprising. This is what takes place when more attention and resources are given to starting a pair of wars then to finishing them and attending to the wounded. It's an indictment of presidents, Congresses and VA officials, current and past.