There has been a pattern lately to what springs the Department of Veterans Affairs into action, and it involves a mistake, an embarrassing story in the newspaper and the involvement of a member of Congress. This is no way to provide veterans with the health care they earned nor run a mammoth bureaucracy. President-elect Barack Obama needs to make improving the VA system a priority.
The VA has turned on a dime several times in the past year when faced with celebrated cases of indifference, poor judgment and neglect. Officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa reached out in October to James Carroll when the Air Force veteran, dying of leukemia, charged that Haley had refused to admit him because it lacked the space. "The good thing about the VA is that we were able to get it fixed," a spokesman said at the time. The move followed the VA's apology in August to Florida Sen. Bill Nelson for not providing a more complete picture about the death of a veteran and a reversal in September of the agency's ban on voter registration at veterans' facilities.
The VA deserves credit for moving quickly to correct these mistakes. But playing catch-up is not a viable strategy for serving the 7.8-million enrollees in the VA health care system. Varrian "Otto" Wigner, an 85-year-old World War II veteran, died one day after being discharged from Haley in August; his widow said the hospice lacked the necessary breathing equipment. His case is the third detailed by the Times in recent months about allegations of poor patient care. Critics say the VA is not only overwhelmed but unprepared to deal with the demands that the nation's 23.4-million veterans will impose down the road. The agency is now finalizing a sweeping new policy to prevent the destruction of claims documents. It comes after last month's discovery that hundreds of documents at scores of VA offices were improperly put aside for shredding. Two of the nation's largest veterans' groups also sued the agency Monday over "unconscionable delays" in paying disability benefits.
A commission co-chaired by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole and Donna Shalala, who ran Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, put forward a solid blueprint last year for making the VA system more responsive. Obama has said one of his first acts will be to expand services to veterans, and he has promised to spend more on training and equipment to get benefits to veterans in a timely manner. These are priorities that members of Congress from both political parties should embrace.