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Fix Bad Government with More Government?

By Dennis Byrne

The partisans who are scoring political points by gnashing their teeth over the outpatient failures at Walter Reed Army Medical Center are missing the point: The government did it.

It is especially aggravating because many of these same partisans want to turn the nation's health care system over to...the government.

Or have they somehow missed the fact that the care of veterans is the responsibility of the government? Do they somehow believe that a single-payer health care system, or universal health care, or whatever else they want to call it will be immune to the kind of bureaucratic insensitivity, apathy and bungling that is integral to government?

Would the stampeding fault-finders please explain to the world how they would ensure that civilian outpatients, under a bureaucracy rivaling the military's, would not be ignored in the same manner that the military bureaucracy abandoned the wounded veterans in Building 18? With hundreds of millions of civilian patients, instead of thousands of wounded veterans, would someone give us a clue how the government would keep track of them all? With outpatient veterans getting lost under mountains of paperwork and red tape, how would government be more responsive to the needs of hundreds of millions?

Instead of seeing the big picture by addressing such questions, everyone seems to be ducking for cover, or engaging in the kind of delicious demagoguery unseen since Hurricane Katrina. "This is the Katrina of 2007," intoned Sen. Chuck Schumer, (D-N.Y.) "There is a pattern here that we're just not focused on what needs to be done to help these young men and women," crabbed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) a presidential candidate and architect a decade ago of a monstrous bureaucratic nightmare that would have confounded the lives of every American seeking quality health care.

Just how far they'll go is demonstrated by their dishonest attempt to blame the private sector for the Walter Reed failures. "Critics cite ineptness at Walter Reed. Outsourced maintenance may be factor in substandard conditions, they say," reported Lisa Myers and the NBC Investigative Unit on Wednesday.

Who are these "critics?" One is John Gage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers in...government. He's probably feeling irritable because about 100 private sector workers took over jobs previously performed by 350 government employees, which is probably about the right ratio of how many government workers are required to do the work of private sector workers.

The attempt here obviously is to blame privatization for the failures, but that's hard to imagine when the private sector workers arrived only a month ago. Maybe we're supposed to believe that the private sector workers brought the bugs, mold and peeling wallpaper with them.

Oh, but this is the same company, we're reminded, that was accused of botching the job of bringing ice to the beleaguered refugees of Katrina. "They didn't seem to be doing a very good job even delivering the ice, and from what we now see, they didn't do a very good job at Walter Reed, either," groused the always predictably partisan Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) Okay, if we have to revisit Katrina, let's revisit Katrina:

As a part of the response to the urgent "do-somethings" from critics of the Katrina relief effort, an army of trucks was sent out to scour the country for ice for the sweltering victims. It wasn't like millions of pounds of ice were ready on the spur of the moment to ship anywhere in the country. Yet, these trucks, which were accused of not delivering "a cube" of ice in fact delivered 182 million pounds. And because not all of it could be used, another 200 million or so pounds were positioned for future storms--something that also drew criticism.

You can't win. First, they were lambasted for not having millions of pounds of ice immediately available, then they were ridiculed for setting aside millions of pounds for the next disaster. Only simple minds that live in an uncomplicated world can think you can simultaneously criticize FEMA for both.

Back to Walter Reed. Notice that all the apologies issued by the brass didn't slow the onslaught of high-horse criticism. This is worthy of note, because in these times, apologies are always required, whether of President George W. Bush for starting the Iraq War or from Hillary Clinton for not initially opposing it. This shows that, for folks demanding apologies, getting one is never good enough.

But what they really want is transparent enough. Instead of 100 private sector workers, or 350 government workers (the ones who made the mess to start with), what is required is double the number of government workers. And a new layer of bureaucracy to oversee them, a "blue ribbon" committee, congressional hearings and all the rest. That's because the formula for fixing bad government always, to them, is more government. No matter what.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist.

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