On Monday I had an appointment at the Manhattan campus of the Veterans Affairs New York Harbor Healthcare System. I arrived a half-hour early for my late-afternoon appointment and hoped by some rare chance I might be seen ahead of schedule. Maybe earlier in the day someone had canceled. I was wrong. In this waiting room of two dozen chairs, every seat was filled with veterans patiently waiting to be tended to by their VA doctors.
I had some time to think about the upcoming Memorial Day holiday, a time when we pay tribute to the men and women who’ve died while serving in the armed forces. My mind wandered to the service members who are still with us, to the waiting rooms of the Phoenix VA Health Care System and to the public outrage following allegations at least 40 veterans died while awaiting medical care in Phoenix.
How did we get here? To a place where lack—not enough staff, not enough VA funding, not enough political capital—dictates how we as a nation care for those who’ve served?
I’d argue that, in some ways, the Department of Veterans Affairs under the leadership of Secretary Eric Shinseki has proved to be a more effective killer of service members than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined. With an estimated 22 veterans a day committing suicide, the recent reports of veteran deaths in Phoenix, as well as the outrageous backlog of disability claims, what will it take for President Barack Obama to recognize that the man he appointed needs to go? And yet the White House continues to back Shinseki, despite multiple veteran organizations, including the nation’s largest, the American Legion, calling for the retired four-star general’s resignation.
In 2003, before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, as Army chief of staff, Shinseki testified before the Armed Services Committee and estimated “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to occupy and retain control of the country. That was many times Defense Department Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s figure of just 100,000 soldiers. Shinseki’s Iraq War assessment pitted him squarely against the strategy of George W. Bush. For those who opposed military action in Iraq, they had a well-respected military leader who’d voiced dissent against architects of the Iraq War strategy.
Obama, in the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, often touted his consistent opposition to the Iraq War—first in the Illinois Senate and later as U.S. senator, when he voted against the surge as well as funding for expansion of the war. So in 2009, when Obama appointed Shinseki to the Cabinet post, they appeared to be a logical fit. The politician and the soldier, who years prior had both seen the pitfalls of the Iraq military strategy.
Today they stand together again, this time trying to defend the VA health care system, which has been mired in controversies since Shinseki’s appointment.
Under his leadership, the department has yet to come up with an action plan that addresses the climbing number of veteran suicides. It has failed to create a single electronic health-records system that would work in tandem with the Department of Defense, which could streamline the disability-claims process for veterans. That failure came at a cost of more than $1 billion over four years. Disability ratings factor into the compensation process for veterans’ injuries, making their military medical records particularly significant. Despite a mandate from Congress for the DOD and VA to “integrate” their electronic health-records system, neither has been able to figure out how to do so.
Now the Phoenix VA Health Care System is under federal investigation by the Justice Department, accused of cooking the books, keeping secret waiting lists to hide the real length of time medical care was delayed for patients.
The waiting room was empty by the time I emerged from my doctor’s office and prepared to leave the Manhattan campus of the VA New York Harbor Healthcare System. It was, after all, after 4 p.m. As I glanced at the vacant chairs and thought to myself, “What happens if a veteran needs care after 4:30,” I understood how this perfect storm—one in which people who have served America simply don’t get the help they deserve—came to be.