Obama's Broken VA Promise

Obama's Broken VA Promise

By Tom Bevan - June 10, 2014

In an era when it is commonplace to speak about government services in denominations of millions, billions, and (when we think of the federal debt) even trillions, 57,000 may not seem like a very large number. But when you put that number in human terms – it’s enough bodies to fill every seat in Dodger Stadium plus a thousand people left over – it becomes a very significant figure.

It becomes an even larger number still – scandalously large – when you realize that every one of those bodies represents a United States military veteran who has waited in excess of 90 days for their first doctor’s appointment at a VA medical facility.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded after its internal audit of 731 VA facilities around the country, which was released Monday. The audit confirmed the worst suspicions that have arisen about the agency since Sam Foote, a 61-year-old doctor working at the VA hospital in Phoenix, blew the whistle late last year about the existence of secret waiting lists.

Defenders of the Obama administration are quick to argue the VA crisis was a decade or more in the making. They’ll also point out that President Obama has increased the VA’s budget substantially since he took office.

There is truth to both of those claims. Yet, of all the scandals that have dented the administration’s credibility over the last few years, perhaps none falls more squarely on the shoulders of the president than this one.

Among the many boasts then-Sen. Obama made when running for president in 2008 was that he would “build a 21st century VA.” Obama, touting his brief membership on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee before groups like the VFW, vowed to fix the broken bureaucracy by slashing red tape and providing every living vet with electronic medical records. He promised that reforming the VA would be one of his top priorities.

But, in one of the most disappointing recurring themes of this administration, it turns out the president did a much better job speechifying about how to solve the problem than he did actually solving it.

We now know that Obama and his aides were briefed in late 2008 – during his transition into office – on problems with unreliable wait time data at the VA. Yet it was never a priority of his administration.

Obama did follow through on his promise to request increased funding for the agency, which Congress supplied. But throwing a little more money at the VA wasn’t ever going to be enough solve its problems. Likewise, administration officials thought they could fix the burgeoning crisis in wait times by issuing a mandate declaring no veteran would have to wait more than 14 days for an appointment.

This proclamation may have sounded good, but without implementing any other reforms it was utterly unrealistic. Worse, in the absence of a new vision and competent leadership, the president’s directive exacerbated the problems. By tying performance bonuses of VA hospital administrators to the new mandate, the administration created a system-wide incentive for agency officials to cook the books to make wait times look shorter than they were.

And that’s exactly what they did. The VA audit revealed that nearly one in eight of the 3,772 staff members questioned said they were told to falsify appointment logs.

When you strip away the politics and the rhetoric surrounding the issue, in the end we’re left with an inescapable fact: After 5½ years under the management of this president and his administration, the VA system remains badly broken. It continues to fail our veterans in the most fundamental way, providing timely access to physicians and basic care.

That is a national scandal, and it must be fixed.

Obama still has three years left in his term to reform the VA. It will require the kind of tedious, difficult – and bipartisan – work this president has thus far seemed unable or unwilling to undertake. But he now has 57,000 more reasons to make sure he fulfills the promise he made to veterans years ago. 

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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