Economy & Budget

Too little, too late for veterans under Obama

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President Obama will speak at a televised military town hall in Ft. Lee, Virginia on Wednesday to defend his record on veterans issues. So it’s worth asking: Has he kept the promises he made to America’s heroes?


Before the 2008 election, President Obama outlined an optimistic vision, “No veteran should have to fill out a 23 page claim to get care, or wait months — even years — to get an appointment at the VA.” He promised instead to bring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs into the 21st Century.


{mosads}This hasn’t panned out, which Barry Coates could tell you if he were still with us. Barry passed away earlier this year in his mid-40s, the result of cancer undetected for 11 months due to VA negligence.  “It is likely too late for me,” he noted during a congressional hearing back in 2014. The VA, he said, has “not only handed me a death sentence but ruined the quality of my life I have for the meantime.”


Does this sound like the 21st Century care President Obama promised? Not even close. After eight years, President Obama has left the VA as bad or even worse off than before.


Even before President Obama took office, it was widely known that the VA was troubled. The department was plagued by backlogs for veteran benefits and health care. Midway into President Obama’s first term, he had yet to make headway and veterans suffered as a result. Gallup polling in 2010 showed that veterans reported lower quality of life than did active duty service members or civilians.


It was midway into his second term that things got especially ugly. The secret wait list scandal of 2014 revealed a VA that was more worried about its reputation than the veterans it was charged to support. To appear like it was treating veterans in a timely fashion, VA health care officials hid veterans with particularly long waits on unofficial lists, which caused many of them to suffer unbearable delays in treatment.


At least 293 veterans died while on these wait-lists a problem confirmed to be systematic at VA facilities nationwide. Yet in spite of this travesty the VA distributed over $140 million in bonuses in 2014.


President Obama went on to preside over weak reforms that did little to address the VA’s toxic, unaccountable work culture. Rather than appoint a reformer to lead the department, President Obama instead chose Robert McDonald, who quickly proved ill-equipped to the task.


Where to start? Sec. McDonald failed to admit VA negligence contributed to veterans’ deaths in places like Phoenix, Ariz. In the aftermath of the scandal, he falsely claimed to have cleaned house and fired unethical employees, when in fact he had fired none at that point. And when pressed about the prevalence of long waits for VA health care last year, McDonald made a bizarre and insensitive comparison between veterans’ care and the waits for rides at Disneyland.


Meanwhile, the VA has continued to fail veterans under President Obama’s leadership. Although Congress worked to give the VA resources to hold failing or unethical employees accountable, it took over 700 days to fire senior employees directly involved with the wait list scandal at the Phoenix VA. When veterans’ groups like mine and members of Congress sought to empower veterans with more options as to where they receive health care, the administration stood firm against the idea except in limited circumstances.


President Obama’s response to this decline, invariably, has been to seek more VA funding. Yet VA appropriations grew 68 percent and the departments’ staff ballooned between President Obama’s first year in office and 2015.


Where has the money gone? Over 500,000 appointments still have wait times of one month or longer, despite promises that new staff would help decrease backlogs. Even quality of care is on the decline, as a Washington Post report details that VA medical errors are up 8 percent in recent years. The VA culture is also more toxic than ever, with reported cases of workplace retaliation up 75 percent since 2014.


If President Obama had been serious about bringing the Department of Veterans Affairs into the 21st Century, he would have supported real reform. The VA could have guaranteed veterans the same choice in their health care as they have in their education under the G.I. Bill, allowing veterans to use their benefits at whatever doctor they feel is best — VA or otherwise. It could have welcomed additional transparency in its scheduling practices, and worked to ensure a truly patient-focused experience in its health-care facilities. But the agency didn’t, and veterans suffered for it.


It’s not too late for the next president and a new Congress to help give veterans the care they deserve, but it’s certainly too late for President Obama. For those who’ve worn the uniform, broken promises, pain, and suffering will define his legacy.


Ben Rangel is the North Texas director of Concerned Veterans for America. A veteran of the Marines, Mr. Rangel served two combat tours in Iraq and received a Purple Heart after being wounded in Ramadi.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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