Caring for veterans

The shadows of two Army members fall across teh Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
The shadows of two Army members fall across teh Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. AFP/Getty Images

The discrepancy between what we as a nation profess and what we actually do is rarely more evident than in the treatment of America’s veterans.

The outrageous scandal at the Veterans Administration, where 9 million are enrolled in VA healthcare, suggests that our esteem for veterans does not extend to ensuring that they are treated well by a nation that claims to be grateful for their sacrifice and their service. It all too often fails to live up to the promise.

The report last May that more than three dozen patients had died waiting for care at a VA Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, eventually led to the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. The ensuing congressional hearings produced more shocking revelations.

There were reports of similar wait lists at VA treatment centers around the country and claims by patients that they were often treated badly or with neglect.

Clearly, the agency was riddled with dysfunction and falling far short of its mission to give veterans the level of quality treatment they’ve earned and deserve.

Most Americans were shocked, and should have been. They are indeed grateful to veterans and expect them to be given both prompt attention and compassion. But it really shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Such disclosures arise periodically following almost every conflict. The last scandal occurred not that long ago, in 2007, when The Washington Post exposed wretched conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital.

Still, there are some encouraging signs that help is on the way.

On Monday, former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald, who was appointed to head the VA after Gen. Shinseki resigned, announced a plan to overhaul the entire department. Mr. McDonald, who called it the largest reorganization in VA history, said veterans will now find it easier to gain access to the sprawling department and its many websites.

That’s a good step, but it’s only a beginning — if it indeed leads to the major, transformative change that the VA needs. The next steps should include improving the quality of medical care, ending homelessness among veterans (disproportionately black or Latino), ending the claims backlog and offering better programs to deal with mental health issues and suicide prevention.

The latter problem is particularly acute because it afflicts far too many returning veterans.

By some estimates, 22 veterans commit suicide each day. H.R. 5059, which is wending its way through Congress, aims to provide a legislative fix for this horrible problem. Among other things, it would require a review of all mental-health and suicide-prevention programs at the VA and Department of Defense and create a test program to recruit more psychiatrists by paying off their student loans

Even so, there is no quick fix for what ails the VA, legislative or otherwise, nor will any one administration complete the job. Congress allocated an additional $16 billion earlier this year to hire more doctors and nurses, a desperately needed infusion of money, but Secretary McDonald believes even more funding will be needed to address the growing needs of veterans in the future.

He’s almost surely right. On this Veterans Day 2014, with men and women in uniform still being called on to defend this country against everything from terrorism in the Middle East to a deadly viral epidemic in Africa, Americans must commit once and for all to ending the cycle of failure at the VA.