“If you think it’s too expensive to take care of veterans, then don’t send them to war.”- Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)
All eyes have been on the Department of Veterans Affairs the past month, as allegations of mismanagement by administrators in VA hospitals have surfaced. Democrats, Republicans and veteran groups alike were all appalled and demanded immediate action. Some from all three groups went as far to suggest that Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign for his negligence on the issue. Others, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have asked for patience while an investigation takes place before firing anyone. The bottom line that everyone, from President Obama to the head of the American Legion, agrees that this scandal will not be taken lightly and that our veterans deserve better.
But our veterans have gotten the short end of the stick for quite a while. Unfortunately, the VA has always been a center of controversy on both sides of the aisle. Democrats claim that the VA needs more funding, arguing that current levels can’t keep the VA running efficiently; Republicans claim that the VA is living proof that that government health care would be a disaster, pointing to all of the issues that the VA faces. Issues such as long waiting periods, inflexible scheduling for patients, lack of locations and mountains of paperwork. Add in the new allegations of “cooking the books” in order to reduce wait list length, and the VA appears to be a complete failure. These are serious issues which shouldn’t be taken lightly, but neither side is really offering a clear cut way to fix them.
The biggest issue facing the VA is that both sides fail to adequately defend their positions. Democrats continuously ask for more funds for the agency, arguing that they are underfunded. However, since 2005, the budget for the VA has increased dramatically. The budget of the VA in 2013 was just under $153 billion, compared to $71 billion in 2005, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Now, the funding might be necessary, and also might need even more. However, Democrats have not presented any reason to increase funding, whether because of new challenges or because of any proof that the additional funds have worked.
They have. The VA finally began to use electronic records starting in the early years of the Obama Administration, cutting the amount of back logging by significant portions. Senator Sanders attests that it has cut the amount of backlogs by over 50 percent, some other surveys suggest slightly lower numbers. Also, it is estimated that troops returning home from Afghanistan and Iraq will contribute another two million veterans to the already bloated system. Yet, despite the addition of more veterans to the entire system, there has been few additions in staff or actual VA facilities since the Obama Administration. Budgets presented by the White House have allotted for additional staff, but those budgets have not been passed by Congress. It’s worth noting that the Department of Defense doesn’t do a great job transferring the medical records of active duty soldiers to the VA following their retirement either, even though both departments use electronic records now, and this is an issue that both departments need to address. While it would be unfair to say the VA hasn’t made some progress in the past few years, the continuous problems that plague the VA outweigh many of these incremental improvements.
So what have Republicans done in order to address these issues? They have drafted their own budgetary proposals, all of which cut funding to the VA. While I do understand they are the party of small government, how will maintaining a system that is government run with fewer dollars but more patients actually solve the issues? The current actions of the Republican Party do not actually promote small government, but instead an obstructed, dysfunctional government. What Republicans currently lack is a specific alternative plan to provide care to veterans. Even the staunchest conservatives have not called for the complete defunding of the VA, which is something I applaud. However, to simply reduce funding to the VA while service is expected to be the same, fix all of the atrocities in the system, and do all of this with more veterans coming into the system just doesn’t make any sense.
This isn’t to say that Republicans hate their veterans, because that is not the case. But it isn’t a lie to say that Republicans haven’t done anything effective to help the veterans since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started. Clearly there was not a discussion about the funding necessary to provide care to all of the veterans following our combat missions. Likewise, the Democrats have articulated nothing to the American public about the reasons to increase spending, and while they have argued that more money will solve the issues, there is very little evidence as to what that money would specifically do to address the issues. The only legislation suggested prior to this scandal that was not simply a part of the fiscal year budget was a bill proposed by Senator Sanders in late February. In a vote of 56-41, with only two Republicans voting for it and one Democrat not voting, the bill failed. The bill’s mission was to provide emergency funding specifically to add more staff to VA facilities across the nation.
Senator Sanders appears to be the only member of the United States Senate who is serious about addressing the issues within the VA, which is why I mention him frequently in this article. Luckily, as the head of the Committee on Veterans Affairs, he appears to be in a position where legislation can be crafted. He has presented legislation to the floor before, but I wonder if he can do it again and actually have it get passed.
In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans need to get serious. Democrats can’t just ask for random amounts of money without a well thought out reason. I want to see Democrats explain where money has helped, where it hasn’t, and where these proposed increases will be apportioned. Otherwise, I am skeptical of any serious change coming from the Democratic Party. Republicans need to make their case too. If they genuinely believe that the VA is an awful system and government health care is a failure, it is time for them to present an alternative system to help provide the health care that we promised our veterans. If they can’t come up with a plan (something I am also skeptical on), then they need to stop obstructing the current system.
The current system is being ignored and slashed, so it isn’t even government health care. A real party advocating for small government wouldn’t stop funding government agencies and demand them to perform the tasks, they would just remove the entire agency and keep government out of it. But that’s not what is occurring in the United States, it is instead a very dysfunctional system where government is involved but has hardly enough resources to perform any duties effectively. Democrats need to provide specifics and Republicans need to choose if they want to fund the system, be the party of small government, or continue to be the party of obstructionism. Until both parties can concede their faults, I am unsure if any major overhaul will occur. Yes, incremental improvements will continue, but the dire issues will become worse. We have already left our veterans behind, and it is a shame.
Happy Memorial Day