This Memorial Day is an appropriate time to remember that our nation makes a pact with every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine who wears the uniform. The pact runs in two directions: just as the servicemember pledges his or her life to defend our country and our freedoms, our nation is obliged to see that each servicemember is well equipped, well trained, and treated with respect.
This respect includes all the healthcare benefits that were promised to veterans that receive care through the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Health Administration Center. Americans are rightly proud of this basic promise.
That’s why I am utterly appalled at the recent allegations of dysfunction in the VA health system. While I have been raising concerns with the VA for years on behalf of our veterans, horrifying news stories have emerged in recent weeks about administrators at a VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, falsifying medical records to conceal unacceptable delays in providing care to our nation’s veterans.
Reports indicate these delays may have led to the deaths of some veterans who did not receive proper care in the time they should have. According to news reports, dozens of veterans died while waiting for care, and hundreds more were not properly registered in the system so that the hospital could misleadingly claim veterans had shorter waiting times.
Since these first initial stories in Phoenix, similar reports have emerged in six other states from North Carolina to New Mexico. The mounting allegations of corruption, cover-ups, and delayed care resulting in deaths that could have been avoided are frightening. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has ordered a review of the problems in Phoenix—but he has yet to acknowledge the obvious fact that the VA is facing a systemic crisis.
This crisis comes on top of the unprecedented backlog of pending VA claims cases in the system, with many veterans waiting months or even years just to hear back from the VA on the status of their claims. Such a backlog is a national disgrace, which is why I called the Obama Administration to task for mishandling these claims last year, and have raised the issue with Secretary Shinseki for years.
A VA crisis of this magnitude demands clear leadership from President Obama. Unfortunately, so far I have yet to hear from the president that he is treating the VA crisis with the seriousness it deserves.
When the website for Obamacare wasn’t working, President Obama publicly and repeatedly pledged to get it working. I’m disappointed he has not pledged as loudly and as repeatedly to do the right thing for our nation’s veterans. They deserve more attention than a failed website.
One step he could take would be to embrace legislation I am sponsoring in the U.S. Senate with U.S. Senator Marco Rubio that would make high-ranking officials in the VA more accountable for what happens under their watch. This legislation, the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act, would make it easier to remove high-level VA employees for performance failures.
No one’s job should be immune when there is proof of delay, dysfunction, and corruption—least of all those charged with providing health care services for our nation’s veterans. This bill is a common-sense step towards a solution to the problem that is supported by legislators from both parties. Simply put, those entrusted to care for our heroes need to be held accountable.
As we continue to find out more about the problems at the VA, I am sure members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat, will put forward other good ideas to see to it that this wrongdoing does not happen again. I hope the president will join us. And I hope he will join me in denouncing this disgraceful behavior in his administration.
Any misconduct found at VA hospitals should be met with swift punishment. And any administration officials responsible need to be held fully accountable. America’s ill and wounded veterans have already given so much to this country, and paid a price for doing so. They have the right to expect that their government will answer them when they ask for help. Because, as a colleague of mine noted, they stood first in line when the call came to serve—so now the VA should treat every veteran as if they are first in line for the quality health care they were promised and have earned.