Memorial Day should include call to action on care of vets

The OlympianMay 25, 2014 

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a national holiday dedicated to those who have died in war, serving this country.

The tradition of honoring the men and women who have paid the greatest sacrifice for their country began shortly after the Civil War. The last Monday in May has been officially set aside for this remembrance since 1971. Friends, family and strangers will gather at events both public and private to pay respect to the fallen of past and present wars.

All of the Memorial Day tributes across the land would be even more meaningful if they included a national and personal commitment to once and for all tackle and correct mismanagement that appears to have spread like a cancer within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In recent days, horrific examples of case mismanagement at veterans hospitals have surfaced throughout the country. Veterans’ lives have been lost because of unacceptable delays in medical treatment. Veterans have suffered needlessly while Veterans Affairs administrators gamed the system and cooked the books to make it look as if they’re delivering services in a timely manner.

Far too often, veterans are not receiving the medical care they deserve, or the wait time is so long that their health is compromised.

There’s only so much the government can do for those who died serving their country. But there’s so much more the government can do to treat the war wounds, mental trauma and overall health of the veterans who come home alive.

The public should be outraged by the cases of neglect that have come to light lately. Take the case of Edward Laird, a 76-year-old Navy veteran living in Arizona who noticed two small blemishes on his nose three years ago. His doctor at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Phoenix ordered a biopsy, but Laird could not get an appointment to see a specialist. Two years passed. He filed a formal complaint, but it was too late. The growths on his nose turned out to be cancerous, requiring removal of half of his nose.

Also disturbing are reports of VA medical support staff who said they faced reprimands for resisting orders from their supervisors to manipulate appointment books.

It’s not as if the VA mismanagement problem cropped up overnight. A VA internal memo six years ago spoke of veterans hospital employees falsifying the patient scheduling system to cover up delays in care. In 2012, the General Accountability Office issued a report stating that the system VA uses to document its medical appointment wait times was outdated, ripe for abuse and in need of a complete overhaul.

Amid the furor, VA officials have said gaming of the appointment wait list has only happened in isolated cases. They insist the vast majority of veterans are receiving timely, high-quality medical care. But tell that to family members of Veterans Affairs patients who have waited, suffered and died without the medical care they deserve.

Memorial Day is an appropriate day to renew the call for meaningful reforms at the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, and adequate funding to hire the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff needed to erase the backlogs and bungling bureaucracy found within the nation’s largest health care network.

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