Richard Wilson, age 64, survived two tours in Vietnam, but he’s afraid he won’t survive the wait at his local Veterans Affairs hospital. Warned seven months ago that circulation blockages in his legs put him at imminent risk of a fatal heart attack or amputations, he called and emailed the VA daily. He’s in pain, unable to walk, his big toe recently turned black, and his wife is living in fear. Half a year went by before the VA even contacted him, and he’s still waiting for his surgery.
Eric Shinseki’s resignation as head of Veterans Affairs last Friday didn’t get Wilson the care he needs. And if the Restoring Veterans’ Trust Act of 2014, a bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, which will be debated Thursday, passes, it is likely to make the situation for waiting vets worse.
Based on the summary Sanders released, it should be called the VA Employee Protection Act. Sanders is a mouthpiece for organized labor. Nine of his top 10 contributors are unions. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Sanders stands in the way of holding VA managers accountable for the VA hospitals’ lethal secret waiting lists.
On May 22, Sanders scuffled with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, over Rubio’s legislation to allow the VA to fire those linked to the secret lists. The legislation already had sailed through the House with bipartisan support. The American Legion and other vet groups backed it.
Sanders objected that he hadn’t read it. Rubio offered to wait while he did. Rubio could have held his breath. The bill is only 351 words long.
Rubio insists a new VA director should be able to “fire executives underneath him if they haven’t done their job — a power he doesn’t have right now.” But Sanders killed the bill, saying he wants to keep the “due process” rules — months of hearings and paperwork — that currently make firing federal workers and teachers a long, costly ordeal.
In February, Sanders introduced legislation to protect VA workers from productivity benchmarks on how many claims they process. Sanders is pushing to expand VA health care enrollment to include even vets with no combat-related problems and no financial hardships. Why? Because the VA’s health care budget is based on enrollment. More vets enrolled means a bigger budget and more union jobs. But it’s not an improvement for vets.
Stewart Hickey, executive director of American Veterans, said: “You have an already stressed bureaucracy, then you’re going to throw more on it for them to do. You’re just going to compound the problem.”
Sanders’ bill calls for emergency funding. No question there’s an emergency at the VA. But it’s about malfeasance, not lack of money. Congress has increased funding faster than the growth of VA patients. Generally, the VA has had about half a billion dollars left over at the end of the year.
Like in “Field of Dreams,” Sanders envisions more VA hospitals and clinics. He is calling for a presidential commission on building to report within 90 days. Sorry, Senator. No more reports needed. The General Accountability Office has issued report after report on cost overruns and delays at construction sites. The Denver VA hospital project, launched in 2004 and budgeted at $328 million, passed $800 million by 2010, due to mismanagement and bungled designs, and is now estimated to cost $1 billion, if ever completed. Same stories in New Orleans, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Florida. Like a field of nightmares.
To help vets like Wilson, wiser voices are proposing insurance cards or vouchers that would enable vets to seek care from the private sector. Most VA hospitals have relationships with nearby teaching hospitals where older vets could get cardiovascular and cancer surgery with better survival rates than at the most VAs.
But Sanders’ union allies oppose using the private sector. Sanders’ legislation favors sending waiting vets to community health centers — federally funded clinics that Obamacare is transforming into mini-Tammany Halls. The National Association of Community Health Centers lists voter registration as part of its core mission. Vets won’t get top-notch specialty care at these clinics, but funneling money to them serves the Democratic Party.
Sanders’ bill helps union organizers, VA bureaucrats, and Democratic Party cronies, not people who have served their country in war like Wilson.
Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and the author of “Beating Obamacare.” She reads the law so you don’t have to.