The Department of Veterans Affairs recently announced its plan to support 500,000 eligible women with health benefits—an appropriate measure for these former service members. But the VA—inept, bloated, and incapable of properly organizing itself—is the wrong federal agency to deliver these much-needed services. Its repeated failures and scandals suggest that it should no longer be entrusted with the care of those who have served America in the armed forces.
Several years ago, headlines exposed stories of veterans dying due to delayed care. In 2015, the VA issued a report admitting that 307,000 veterans had died while waiting for the agency to process their enrollment requests. This followed stories of 40 veterans dying, with more than 1,400 more waiting for appointments, at VA health-care facilities in Phoenix. In an elaborate scheme, VA managers tried to cover up their malfeasance.
The VA’s track record on treatment, as shown not only by these recent scandals but by its response to Vietnam War veterans afflicted by the toxic herbicide Agent Orange, suggests a continued legacy of inadequate care, negligence, and incompetence. Two recent court decisions show that the VA is making matters even worse.
The first, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, reversed a previous decision by the same court. In 2008, the appeals court had ruled that some 90,000 Navy sailors who served on ships off the coast of Vietnam but never actually set foot on land were ineligible for Agent Orange-related benefits. (The court eventually reversed itself.) The second decision, by a federal district judge in Los Angeles, dismissed a whistleblower’s charges that the private contractor responsible for reviewing veterans’ files had defrauded the government by doing a slapdash job.
The common denominator in both cases was the VA’s disinterest. The VA didn’t believe the “blue water” sailors should be eligible for the benefits, and it trotted out low-level bureaucrats to argue that the contractor had done an acceptable job. In both cases, it was clear that the VA did not prioritize the veterans’ best interests.
Sadly, this fits a pattern. It wasn’t until 1986, following class-action lawsuits, that the VA even admitted that Agent Orange caused problems, beyond acne. Since then, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and numerous types of cancer have been linked to Agent Orange. Some 2.6 million service members were exposed to the defoliant, and to date, the government has paid more than $4.5 billion to veterans and their surviving family members.
In 2009, VA secretary Eric Shinseki—the Army’s former top general who served two combat tours in Vietnam—directed a review of some 150,000 veterans’ files for symptoms of four new and serious diseases that the National Institutes of Medicine linked to the defoliant. The review of these veterans’ files, between 2011 and 2015, formed the basis of the whistleblower suit.
The lawsuit was filed by David Vatan, a medical doctor hired by the contractor to help review the files. According to Vatan, the contractors’ work was so poorly done that all files required reexamination. Though the trial judge recently granted the defense’s motion dismissing the case, a previous ruling by the same judge—also dismissing the case—was reversed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. So, while the outcome of the action remains uncertain, the VA employees’ testimony about incompetent care and benefits should give anyone pause.
The VA employees’ affidavits, submitted in support of the defense, contradicted Vatan’s firsthand observations. Their submission also disagreed with testimony from the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), a nonprofit that worked with the VA to set up screening criteria, procedures, and training for file reviews. The NVLSP concluded that the contractors’ training and quality-assurance procedures did not meet established standards. But the VA affidavit maintained that everything was fine.
I was reminded of veterans’ VA difficulties by a Naval Academy classmate who had a cancerous kidney removed. He was battling not just his illness but also the VA, to grant disability benefits. He reported that the VA’s default position was to deny benefits unless a doctor stated that the cancer was “more likely than not caused by exposure to herbicides while in the military.”
Beyond the too-frequent headlines of VA scandals and inadequate care for veterans, the Government Accountability Office has issued two compelling reports within the last few months. Both called for better oversight of contractors implementing VA programs. That is too little, too late. Aging veterans deserve an immediate review of their files. Many are suffering from Agent Orange-related diseases and need medical treatment. And the growing number of women now eligible for veterans’ benefits need care that the VA has no experience in providing.
Congress and successive presidential administrations have tried too many times to reform the VA. It hasn’t worked. It is time to disband the VA. Responsibility for reviewing veterans’ benefits should be shifted to the Department of Defense. And the actual delivery of medical care should become the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve downgraded a Cabinet office (the Post Office) or reassigned responsibilities to different agencies (Department of Health, Education, and Welfare).
Our veterans—men and women—deserve no less.