Eric Shinseki resigned as VA secretary in light of deception at several VA hospitals as some veterans died waiting for care that never came. The U.S. Senate last week negotiated a bipartisan bill to expand care for sick veterans. All's well at the VA after the outrage over secret waiting lists that kept some veterans from getting appointments for medical care for at least half a year.
OK, that last one is premature because, while lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for quickly addressing the deficiencies and challenges that too many veterans face in trying to access care, they are conveniently ignoring the fact that they are one of the major problems keeping the VA from doing what it's supposed to do, efficiently, effectively and with compassion.
The Senate took a small, remedial step last week when it reached an aisle-crossing accord. It gives the VA's acting secretary authority to fire senior officials and to expand healthcare access for veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility.
It's amazing, but true - and by no means limited to the VA - that Congress makes it virtually impossible for the agency to fire, discipline or transfer employees. It's the downside of the "merit protection" system that lets even incompetent federal staffers languish on the job until retirement.
This is just one of the restrictions that Congress has imposed, as outlined recently in The Washington Post by Peter H. Schuck, a former Yale professor who is the author of the book "Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better." The Senate accord, which might come to a vote on the floor early this week, loosens the handcuffs a bit, at least at the VA, but as Schuck starkly lays out, hurdles remain that only the federal lawmakers can take down:
-Because Congress has broadly defined "compensable disability," the VA is deluged with claims. Disability benefits now extend to conditions that are not service-related, including common conditions that come with age, such as hearing loss and arthritis, but that are not specific to veterans. This contributed to a backlog of almost 900,000 disability claims last year.
-Even as Congress has caused more claims to flood the VA, it steadfastly refuses to provide adequate funding to process those claims. Even though the agency has added thousands of claims processors in the past few years, it hasn't been nearly enough.
-Congress has allowed the VA's computerization efforts to lag so much that almost 40 percent of its claims files are still done on paper. This makes no sense in the 21st century, and even less because of the lives at stake.
Schuck writes: "The VA's budget has doubled in real terms during the last decade - this year it is $162 billion, and the White House has requested a 3-percent increase for 2015 - but the congressional veterans affairs committees know that this is not nearly enough to solve the problem of delayed benefits and services, a chronic problem that predated the Iraq and Afghanistan wars."
Clearly, those two protracted wars have made the situation even worse. By all means, the full Senate should approve the accord reached by lead advocates Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt. But they can't do so thinking that they have solved the VA's problems. For that, lawmakers must acknowledge their own culpability in the agency's failures, then knock down those hurdles that keep the VA from fulfilling its responsibility to the men and women who did not fight only to be treated with such flagrant disregard.