This op-ed was originally published in the Arizona Republic newspaper, a sister publication of WVEC TV.
In an attempt to explain the VA scandal, some in the press have adopted a simple, logical-sounding argument:
An influx of veterans into the Department of Veterans Affairs health-care system overburdened a department that was starved for money and resources, thereby contributing to the current delays in care crisis.
The problem is it's false. If money could have solved the VA's problems, we wouldn't be having this conversation.
The truth is that chronic mismanagement lies at the heart of the VA scandal and that serial corruption within the department hid the true extent of the VA's problems for years. Fixing what ails the department will require a serious culture change as well as a thorough personnel housecleaning.
The VA's budget has nearly tripled since 2001, and since fiscal 2010, the VA has had more medical-care funding than it could spend, carrying over more than $1 billion from fiscal 2010 to 2011 and from fiscal 2011 to 2012, $637 million from fiscal 2012 to 2013 and $543 million from fiscal 2013 to 2014. And according to the VA's latest budget request, the department expected it would carry over $450 million from fiscal 2014 to 2015.
So, instead of spending its ample resources to use the department's long-standing authority to offer veterans facing interminable waits non-VA care, countless bureaucrats let veterans languish on wait lists. Now, the recent deaths of at least 23 veterans have been linked to delayed VA care and at least 35 Phoenix-area veterans have died while awaiting care the department was supposed to provide.
The VA has had appointment-scheduling problems for years. The department's inspector general has issued 18 reports on the subject since 2005. And almost every report that documented difficulties and mismanagement in the department's scheduling system was accompanied by assurances from VA officials that plans were in place to address the problems. We now know that these were hollow promises VA leaders were either unwilling or unable to keep.
What's more, after completing a recent internal review of its scheduling practices, department officials determined that many VA medical centers are plagued by a systemic lack of integrity. Schedulers were pressured into manipulating data in order to make appointment wait times appear shorter. The corruption was so ingrained in the VA's culture that staff at many VA facilities were taught how to cook the books.
VA auditors have flagged 112 facilities for further review of scheduling irregularities. Additionally, the department's inspector general is investigating 69 VA medical facilities for wait-time schemes, and the FBI has opened a criminal probe into the Phoenix VA Health Care System.
While the House and Senate are working together to craft a VA-reform proposal that will likely result in additional funding so the department can quickly offer veterans facing unacceptable wait times the option to receive non-VA care, this is merely a short-term, emergency solution designed to deal with a bona fide emergency that VA created.
In the longer term, ensuring the VA can effectively deliver the care and benefits our veterans have earned hinges on rooting out the culture of dishonesty and fraud that has taken hold within the department. Quite simply, any VA administrator who ordered subordinates to purposely manipulate appointment data should be fired immediately. That is why granting the VA secretary the authority to quickly fire poorly performing executives is central to the reform efforts currently being discussed by Congress.
Although a temporary influx of additional funding may be required to help solve the VA's delays in care crisis, no amount of money could have prevented it from happening in the first place. The unfortunate truth is that top department leaders simply looked the other way while mid-level bureaucrats lied, cheated and put the health of veterans at risk.
Right now, it's incumbent on all of the VA's external watchdogs — Congress, the press and the American public — to maintain pressure on the department until those who created the VA scandal are purged from the system. Otherwise, history may very well repeat itself.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla, is chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.