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Marking Memorial Day at the VA

Monday May 30th, 2016   •   Posted by Craig Eyermann at 3:00am PDT   •  

memorialIn the United States, we celebrate Memorial Day to remember and honor the Americans who died while serving in the military services of the nation. As a holiday, it began informally in the late 1860s, where it was first called “Decoration Day“, which arose in the cities and towns whose families had provided so many of the soldiers who had lost their lives during the Civil War, whose graves were decorated with flowers to remember their lives and to mark their loss. A little over a century later, in 1971, Memorial Day became an official holiday for all of the United States.

We mark the loss of those who died in the military service of the country because their lives meant something—not just to their particular branch of the military, whether it be Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine—but to their families, where the loss of their lives has left behind holes in the fabric of their communities that can never be fixed.

So on this solemn day, what are we to make of the remarks of the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, who compared living veterans waiting days and weeks to have an appointment for treatment at the VA’s hospitals and medical service centers to the long lines at Disney theme parks on Monday, May 23, 2016.

The New York Times reports:

At an event with reporters on Monday, Mr. McDonald was asked why the department did not publicly report the so-called create date when veterans first ask for medical care, which could be used to calculate how long they are waiting in lengthy backlogs for their appointments.

“The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring,” Mr. McDonald responded. “What we should be measuring is the veteran’s satisfaction. What really counts is how does the veteran feel about their encounter with the V.A.? When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What is important is, what is your satisfaction with the experience.”

Writing at Forbes two days later, Adam Andrzejewski explains why McDonald’s remarks are so dishonorable.

Two years ago, Americans were horrified to learn that as many as 1,000 of our nation’s veterans had died while waiting for medical care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Any hopes of reforming the dysfunctional VA culture were dashed two days ago when Secretary Robert McDonald made an appalling comparison to waiting in line at Disney parks.

Adam Andrzejewski is the founder of OpenTheBooks, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the amount of transparency in federal government agencies for how they spend the money they put U.S. taxpayers on the hook for paying through their federal taxes. OpenTheBooks has just issued a new report looking at how the Department of Veterans Affairs is addressing the scandal of its deficiencies in providing medical care to living veterans seeking it.

Between OpenTheBooks’ report and his Forbes article, Andrzejewski identifies the following key findings and facts for what his organization discovered about the VA’s spending in the two years since the scandal that revealed its mistreatment of U.S. veterans seeking medical care first came to light.

  • Today, nearly half a million veterans still wait to see a VA doctor. According to USA Today, more than 480,000 veterans were waiting more than 30 days for an appointment.
  • The VA lawyered-up during the scandal—adding 175 more lawyers (2012-2015)—spending $454.4 million on ‘General Attorney’ salaries and bonuses. With 1,060 lawyers on staff, the VA now has more lawyers than all but the fourteen largest private law firms in the USA.
  • In an attempt to improve its image, the VA has spent $99.4 million on ‘Public Affairs’ (PR) salaries and bonuses since 2012. In 2015, the VA employed a PR corps of 304 officers—up from 262 officers in 2012.
  • Even after “reforms” were instituted, we found that one of every two bonuses continued to flow to the same people who collected bonuses during the scandal.
  • Since 2012, total annual salaries increased by 168 percent over the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
  • Since 2012, total annual salaries spending increased by 18.7 percent.
  • While long wait times persisted the VA added 39,454 new positions to their payroll between 2012-2015. Fewer than ten percent of these new positions (3,591) were ‘Medical Officers,’ i.e. doctors.

To understand why the VA has hired so many lawyers and PR flacks in proportion to the number of actual doctors it has hired, please consider the following story from Jonah Bennett of the Daily Caller News Foundation:

A Phoenix VA supervisor, who managed the secret wait list in 2014 where dozens of vets died, was caught denying specialty care appointment referrals to veterans in a petty power play.

Pauline DeWenter, supervisory medical administration specialist, fired off an email May 20 telling other VA staff of her decision to instruct medical support assistants not to schedule consults for veterans in podiatry, according to emails obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation. A consult is an appointment with a specialist….

“The story her[e] is that she’s preventing access to care for Veterans again, not by hiding their appointment’s in a drawer, now by openly telling her staff not to schedule them,” a whistleblower told TheDCNF. “That is why the chief of podiatry vehemently complained.”

DeWenter was a key actor involved in maintaining the secret wait list at the Phoenix VA in 2014, which kicked off a national scandal and put the VA through serious scrutiny. She was responsible for managing and handling the list — where veterans were placed when management wanted to completely ignore them for the purpose of improving wait time statistics, all the while these veterans languished without care. At least 40 vets died while waiting for care on these lists.

How many more graves will be decorated this Memorial Day as a direct consequence of the VA’s continuing failures to provide medical care to the nation’s veterans from doctors when they need it most—while they are still alive?

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May 2016