Hagan: The VA health care lesson

Bob Hagan, rhagan66@yahoo.com


Bob Hagan


Yes, I’m a veteran, but please don’t thank me. It’s embarrassing. I was an indifferent soldier, enlisted only to avoid being drafted to fight in a war already lost. I wanted no more than to emerge intact from the other end of the sausage grinder we called the Green Machine.

But if I was little credit to the uniform I was privileged to serve with some real soldiers. Our company first sergeant was a formidable presence who had left a hand in the Ah Shau Valley. We called him “The Hook” and I still have vivid memories of the way he would tap some unlucky draftee on the breastbone with that fearsome stainless-steel prosthesis to emphasize his disappointment as he catalogued the boy’s shortcomings in attitude, performance and soldierly demeanor.

The most decorated man in our unit was a Mescalero Apache whose rows of ribbons included a Silver and two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts and a Navy medal. The last was awarded for rescuing a comrade who fell into the harbor while disembarking from a troop ship. Weighted down by his equipment, the soldier would have sunk like a stone if the Mescalero man had not jumped into the water and held him up until the sailors tossed them a line and pulled them to safety. He told me the story in fewer words than that.

I may not be entitled to the thanks of a grateful nation, but men like those are.

Lincoln acknowledged our obligation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle” while the Civil War was yet raging, and Obama recently called our commitment to the nation’s 21 million military veterans “a sacred covenant.” But words are in inexhaustible supply, the politician’s stock in trade. It’s proven far tougher to make good on our promise.

It’s been three years since rumors first began leaking about problems in the Veterans Administration’s giant health care system. Patients were waiting months to receive critical treatment and sometimes dying while they waited. Administrators at the Phoenix VA were caught making the numbers dance to hide the delays, and it soon became clear the problem was spread throughout the Southwest. More than 300 veterans died, including two New Mexicans who experienced “significant delays that may have affected the patients’ clinical outcomes.” 

Bureaucrats lied and people died, to paraphrase the anti-war demonstrators of a few years ago. Congress commissioned a 300-page report that detailed the VA’s “systemic, critical problems,” including “growing bureaucracy, leadership and staffing challenges.” The report offered suggestions for sweeping reforms but gloomily noted the agency is “not well positioned to succeed in the transformation.”

A new secretary was appointed and a handful of employees were fired, transferred or otherwise disciplined. Memos were disseminated, policies revised and dust raised. The VA spent $68 million on a task force commissioned to “develop a detailed plan to implement change.” 

That effort failed entirely, according to a report released last month by the Government Accountability Office. The VA “cannot be certain that the changes being made are effectively addressing deficiencies; nor can it ensure lessons learned can be applied to future organizational structure changes,” the GAO complained.

Although periodically shaken by tremors of scandal, the VA may simply be too fossilized to fix. Every government agency is ultimately strangled by its own bureaucracy. According to one theory, that’s why the Maya quit building pyramids and went back to subsistence farming.

That’s a lesson we need to keep in mind as we discuss how to fix not only the VA but Obamacare, Medicare and Medicaid.

You can also contact Bob Hagan at or through trackingnana.com.