Commentary Magazine


Report Shows Veterans Affairs in Crisis

When Paul Krugman says a government health-care scandal is being blown out of proportion by conservatives, you can be sure the opposite is true. Such was the case when Krugman told his readers to be suspicious of cancer patients suffering under ObamaCare, and it is the case with the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, as a new report makes clear.

To be fair, Krugman does not dismiss the VA entirely: “It’s a real scandal; some heads have already rolled, but there’s surely more to clean up,” he writes. But he understands the philosophical stakes here. Liberals (like Krugman) have used the VA as an example of the success of what he calls “an island of socialized medicine, a miniature version of Britain’s National Health Service, in a privatized sea.” If the VA were really in much, much worse shape, the island of socialized medicine would be best avoided. And now, thanks to a yearlong congressional investigation spearheaded by Tom Coburn, we know that the VA is indeed in much, much worse shape.

The key for leftist proponents of centralized health-care bureaucracy is to somehow disentangle the scandals from the policy. There’s no denying the corruption of the VA system; the PR strategy, then, is to claim that one is not the cause of the other. For the VA, this means showing that veterans are still getting good, even superior care from the VA system so there’s a scandal but no crisis. Unfortunately for the Obama administration’s dedicated spinners, that just isn’t the case.

Politico summarizes the key findings:

Delinquent doctors and nurses and lagging medical treatment at the Department of Veterans Affairs may have caused the deaths of more than 1,000 veterans and cost the U.S. $845 million in medical malpractice suits, Sen. Tom Coburn charged in a report released on Tuesday.

The deaths, which occurred over a 10-year period, resulted from VA officials prescribing unneeded and unmonitored painkillers to veterans, delayed treatment that caused cancer to go undetected and veterans waiting at times for months for procedures, the report found.

“More than 1,000 veterans needlessly died under the VA’s watch, and the Department in turn paid these veterans’ families $200 million in wrongful death settlements — the median payment per victim was $150,000,” the report states.

The investigation into ongoing issues at the VA also found that a doctor was able to perform “unnecessary pelvic and breast exams” on female patients, that minority employees faced racial discrimination and that illegal drugs were prevalent in VA facilities.

The report “shows the problems at the VA are worse than anyone imagined. The scope of the VA’s incompetence — and Congress’ indifferent oversight — is breathtaking and disturbing,” said Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and physician who once worked in the VA system.

Wrongful death, systemic racism, sexual abuse, corruption–according to the report, the VA isn’t a model of care with some bad apples. And the allegations about how the VA handled–or didn’t handle–the infractions are disturbing:

A male doctor in Kansas was forced to register as a sex offender after five female patients accused him of performing inappropriate breast and pelvic exams, while a social worker in Oregon was placed on administrative leave after her affair with a veteran under her care was discovered. In both instances, the VA officials continued to receive pay while on leave.

A doctor’s pattern of sexual abuse got him on the sex-offender registry but still collected a salary? Could that be right? According to the investigation, it is; here’s the relevant paragraph from Coburn’s report:

While a Kansas VA official stated sexual abuse allegations are taken seriously by the Department, the doctor continued to collect a salary for nearly two years, although he was not permitted to see patients. He was placed on paid administrative leave in 2011, arrested by Topeka police in May 2012, suspended without pay in July 2012, and finally fired in May 2013. Coincidentally, this doctor’s “employment at Colmery-O’Neil overlapped briefly with that of another physician “who was hired within two years of acquittal on Florida charges he sexually abused multiple patients by performing breast and pelvis examinations unrelated to their medical needs. Prosecutors there said 16 patients filed complaints against” him, “but the doctor was welcome at Colmery-O’Neal in 2011 and 2012 before taking a job in Texas.”

As I wrote yesterday, and as this report confirms, the issue isn’t money: the VA wastes it. The real issue is that government health care lacks accountability and has certain constraints, and that even working with a more limited scope of care, as the VA does, it cannot reconcile the care it is supposed to provide with the reality of central planning.

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