What Do You Do with the VA?
“To fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
This is the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The VA has fallen short of accomplishing this mission since its inception. Why has it been so difficult for this institution to achieve its main goal?
Believe it or not, the concept of assisting veterans in the United States dates back to the 1630s, when the Plymouth Colony settlers passed a law stating that disabled soldiers who had fought against the Pequot Indians would be financially supported by the Colony.
During the Revolutionary War, the colonial government promised to award pensions to disabled soldiers. The 19th century brought a major transformation for veteran assistance, from the construction of medical and housing facilities, to the inclusion of veterans’ widows and dependents in their benefits packages.
By the 1920s, the three agencies that distributed veteran benefits combined to form the Veterans Bureau. The bureau established veteran-only hospitals to treat World War I veterans who had war injuries new to medicine at the time. The bureau became an official government administration, renamed the Veterans Administration. President Reagan promoted the administration to a cabinet-level executive department and renamed it the Department of Veterans Affairs. The department has struggled to achieve its mission for the past few decades.
The Veterans Benefits Administration provides education, rehabilitation, pensions, disability compensation, life insurance, and home loans to veterans. The Veterans Health Administration is the branch responsible for providing medical services to veterans, which encompasses over 800 medical facilities and homes for veterans. The National Cemetery Administration has a disturbingly obvious purpose.
The VA’s proposed 2016 budget is upwards of $170 billion. This new budget includes funding to increase veterans’ access to services, continue progress on the disability claims backlog, and attempt to end veteran homelessness.
Like many things in government, the VA has had its fair share of problems and scandals. In 2008, VA employees began discouraging staff members from diagnosing PTSD in order to save money by giving out less disability compensation.
The VA’s decision to omit knowledge of cancer cases was also brought into the spotlight. Originally, they would publicly report the cancer cases they treated. When they stopped, people questioned their motives, but the VA said it was to protect their patient’s privacy.
The VA has also been under fire for the quality of the health services they provide, and most recently for the absurdly long wait times that veterans must endure before receiving medical attention.Veterans understandably have countless complaints about the VA. It’s a massive bureaucracy with complicated, deep-seated problems that can’t change overnight.
Terry O’Connell, a Vietnam War veteran who has been involved in the VA since the Carter administration, speaks to the corruption that has poisoned the institution since it became a permanent part of the federal government.
For years, the VA has been a hotbed of deception, document falsification, and other forms of corruption. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki ended up resigning in 2014 after the story broke that the VA had made veterans wait for months at a time to receive health care and then forged records to cover up the issue.
“My first ‘fix’ would be rooting out corruption,” said O’Connell.
As with any government entity, the issue of budgets and funding has also caused a few problems. Some argue that the VA would become less expensive if it only treated war-related injuries rather than those acquired in old-age. But as O’Connell has experienced, this would be nearly impossible.
Years after his own deployment in Vietnam, O’Connell is fighting a type of cancer connected with Agent Orange. It would be impractical to separate O’Connell’s cancer from his tenure in Vietnam, and would end up being much more costly for the patient. There have been cases of double and triple amputees are deprived of their benefits because the Defense Finance and Accounting Service attempts to reduce the cost of the VA by ruling medical care non-war-related. The VA needs to refocus its mission as an institution on ensuring our veterans are cared for, not on saving money.
From 2009 to 2015, the budget for the VA increased 68 percent, so the problem isn’t insufficient funds; it’s what’s happening with those funds. But when a veteran seeks out medical treatment, the cost of that treatment is sometimes deducted from their military pension, a payment that’s supposed to compensate them for the exact service that caused their injury in the first place.
“The bottom line for me (who has led eighteen-year-olds in combat),” said O’Connell, “is we can never spend enough or work hard enough to repay [our troops], women and men, for their sacrifice at the call of elected officials.”