We all know how Washington crises usually unfold. A problem erupts. Politicians trample each other to express outrage and allocate blame. Scapegoats are sacrificed, legislation emerges and money gets appropriated. And then the issue fades from view.
That's the course the scandal over veterans' health care has followed so far. A few weeks ago, everyone in the capital was high dudgeon over revelations that veterans were suffering and even dying while waiting weeks or months for appointments. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital administrators had falsified records to cover up long wait times.
An investigation by the government's Office of Special Counsel found a "troubling pattern of deficient patient care." A report by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., concluded 1,000 veterans may have died from delays in care or malpractice. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned. Since then, though, the topic has faded from view.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama signed a bill aimed at addressing these failures by giving many veterans the option of seeking care from private health providers. It calls for hiring more doctors to expand the VA's capacity. It also carries a price tag of $16 billion.
The Congressional Budget Office says the package will add $10 billion to the federal budget deficit. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was one of the few lawmakers pointing out that Congress was creating "yet another long-term, unfunded liability." Figuring out how to pay for it was not a high priority.
We would like to think the money will be well spent wisely and frugally. But this is not a new problem. Remember the 2007 uproar over delays and inadequate treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center? This bill once again confirms the old adage that in Washington, nothing succeeds like failure: Mismanagement and scandal? Here's your lottery check.
The legislation is supposed to make VA officials more accountable. It gives the new secretary, Robert McDonald, new power to dismiss or demote top managers for failing to do their jobs properly. But as the Military Times reported, "the measure covers fewer than 500 VA employees, and it's unclear whether any face a real threat to their jobs."
It's not just poor management and dishonesty that need to be eliminated. Many employees who brought problems to light have been punished for telling the truth. That'll make it harder for McDonald to encourage whistleblowers to come forward, and he needs to use his new authority to get rid of anyone who retaliates against them.
Last month, several VA whistleblowers told the House Veterans Affairs Committee how they were penalized for uncovering poor performance. "Retaliation culture is a cancer to the VA," Dr. Christian Head, chief of staff of legal and quality assurance for the Greater Los Angeles VA Health Care System, testified, the result of "a few individuals that perpetuate this idea that we should be silent." The Office of Special Counsel says it is investigating 67 cases of alleged retribution.
At the VA, it ought to be more dangerous to be incompetent than to expose incompetence. If the department makes that vital change, the money Congress and the president have provided should produce better and more timely care.
If not? Then, a few years from now, you can expect to see the same infuriating stories about the VA.
The Chicago Tribune