Overhauling the VA

Few issues unite Republicans and Democrats in Washington today like the cause of veterans. Beyond patriotism, the nation made a promise to provide health care to soldiers sent to fight wars.

That is why, first the Senate quickly and unanimously confirmed war veteran and former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Then, a package of health care reforms was enacted yesterday, authorizing the spending of $17 billion in five years.

The need for new leadership and changes at the VA was highlighted by reports and subsequent studies that showed long waiting lists and delays in treating patients, which resulted in at least 20 deaths. Later it became known that internal reports were forged to show shorter waits, and even that executives were given bonuses based on that information.

McDonald’s mission is to put a huge bureaucracy that seems out of control back on track. For that, the new VA secretary has new power, more money and flexibility to improve the federal agency and the health care it provides. For example, the legislation makes it easier to dismiss staff, makes funds available to open more locations and lets beneficiaries seek private care if they cannot get a timely appointment at the VA.

Thanks to scientific advances, fewer U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq than in previous conflicts. On the other hand, there are many more wounded soldiers. This puts the VA in a situation where it must care for more beneficiaries for a longer period of time, which considerably raises the total cost of health care.

The reforms will help to implement changes. However, the VA’s bureaucratic culture also has to change, in order to more efficiently treat soldiers wounded in combat, both physically and mentally.

Whether the wars were fair or unfair is irrelevant to the health care of soldiers sent to fight them. As usually happens, temporary political leaders are the ones who send them to war, but the nation is the one that must fulfill its commitment to help returning soldiers

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