The Real VA Scandal

     I drove my friend to the VA hospital the other day. He’s a disabled Vietnam veteran. I’ll call him Pete.
     It was a sobering experience.
     The Veterans Administration has been caustically criticized for covering up its enormous backlog in seeing patients. Much of that criticism is deserved. But as always, of late, when Congress gets into it, Congress is simply beating its puny breast and doing a square dance around problems it created itself.
     The real VA “scandal” is that Congress created it, by neglecting to factor in the cost of continuing medical care, over decades, for the young men and women it sends to war.
     I did some construction work not long ago with a young veteran of our second invasion of Iraq. He told me about “stacking corpses like firewood” and then rolling on. He’s a young guy, optimistic and healthy. But who knows what toll this will take on him in the years to come? He doesn’t know and neither do I.
     It is a grave sin that Congress does not even think about these costs before they send our young people to war.
     Here are some troubling statistics. They come from a 2012 Congressional Research Service study of the Veterans Affairs budgets.
     In 1940, the VA budget was $561 million.
     Little did we know – though the signs were there – that we were about to enter the most disastrous war in the history of the world.
     Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces in World War II. The 1940 VA budget allotted them $36.06 a head.
     But wait. The VA budget for the 8.7 million American men and women who served in the Vietnam war was less, adjusted for inflation, than the $36 a head allotted for veterans in World War II.
     Don’t holler at me. I’m quoting the Congressional Research Service.
     The 2012 congressional budget allocation of $125.3 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs included, presumably, the costs of medical coverage for the 1.37 million service members on active duty that year.
     That comes to $91,450 a head for lifetime medical coverage for those veterans – assuming that 100 percent of the VA budget will be used for their medical care. Which it won’t.
     The VA has 280,000 employees. It adjudicated 1.2 million disability claims last year.
     Overhead and the vast expenses of salaries and running its hospitals surely eat up more than half of the VA budget. The VA paid out $67 billion in benefits this year – the other half of its budget.
     So what’s left for the veterans? Let’s assume, conservatively, that a military veteran will live for 30 years after he or she musters out. That reduces that $91,450 lifetime medical coverage to about $3,000 a year.
     Does anyone truly believe that that is sufficient to cover the medical problems of a victim of modern war?
     And, that conservative estimate of $3,000 per year per veteran is a farce. It assumes that the cost of overhead, salaries, administrative expenses, the costs of medicine, diagnostic services and so on, for one of the largest hospital systems in the world, amount to nothing.
     The simple math is, Congress lays aside absolutely nothing in the VA budget for continuing medical care for the people it sends to war.
     My trip to the VA hospital outside San Diego was like a trip to a city. It’s an enormous complex, filled with veterans of wars. My friend Pete had a problem with his medicines, and I saw him treated rudely. But I also saw him find a fine government servant, at a corner window, who took his problems seriously, and spent nearly an hour straightening it out. He got Pete his medicines, and he did it all with grace and ease amid the chaos of a city-sized hospital.
     Congress can crow like chickens all they want about the VA “scandal,” but Congress created it, and Congress should be held to answer for it.
     The 280,000 employees of the Veterans Administration didn’t create this fiasco. Congress did.

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