PATIENT (waving his right arm in a big circle): Doctor, it hurts when I do this. So what do you recommend?
DOCTOR: Don’t do that.
— Old vaudeville joke.
When a military veteran has a problem, he or she is examined by a Department of Veterans Affairs doctor who prescribes a cure. When the Department of Veterans Affairs has a problem, it is examined by government investigators who prescribe a cure.
But the cures will never work if the patients don’t use them — and continue doing the things that caused the problem in the first place. Then it just gets worse.
That’s a big part of what ails the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, according to the sad tale told in the government’s own files. Time and again over 30 years, government investigators documented the VA’s unconscionable and ever-mounting delays in processing veterans’ benefits claims and requests for medical treatment. Time and again, the experts went on to prescribe the cures. Time and again, nothing was done — and the delays became far worse.
The infuriating history is recounted in a chapter in my new book, "Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Fight Our Battles" (published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press). Drawn from the files of the Government Accountability Office (known throughout Washington, D.C. as simply the GAO), the repetitious recounting of the same, old VA problems and same old GAO prescriptions, often in the same old words, is both mind numbing yet mind boggling.
For behind those eye-glazing words are the lives of the best of us — the men and women who had fought our wars in faraway lands and had returned home only to discover they had to fight new battles with their own government — just to get treatment they needed and benefits they earned.
This truncated history begins with an old Photostatted pre-computer-age document, dated December 27, 1978, back when the GAO’s fore-runner congressional watchdog entity, the General Accounting Office, was investigating the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ pre-cabinet forerunner. "The Veterans Administration Can Reduce the Time Required to Process Veterans’ and Survivors’ Initial Claims for Benefits," was the optimistic yet yawn-evoking title. The 40-page report noted that the average delay for processing disability claims was147 days; delays for death pension claims were 80 days.
Repeatedly through the 1980s, 1990s, and into the new century, the VA’s delays, backlogs and wastefully redundant appeals process was documented and decried. There was one good news blip the GAO delivered to Congress — a 1986 report of "timely delivery" of military service records. How did the GAO analysts know the progress was so good? The VA told them so; and nobody checked to verify.
By 1990, the GAO discovered what its watchdogs had failed to see or sniff: That it had been had. It filed a report that blasted the VA for having "understated" various delays.
Solutions? In 1982, the GAO suggested the VA could quickly clear its backlog by approving one-quarter of its claims without reviewing them. In 2007, Harvard professor Linda Bilmes made headlines by proposing a very similar solution. She argued that if spot sampling was good enough for the Internal Revenue Service, it should be good enough for the VA. That impressed many members of Congress and their aides who had forgotten or were too young to have known about that 1982 GAO idea.
In 2001, VA Secretary Anthony Principi told the Associated Press he was determined to fix the hidebound VA claims process. He said: "If I leave this town with (the veterans’ benefits claims) problems still under study, I will count my tour here a failure."
Principi was long gone from the VA by 2007, when the GAO filed a report on the still-under-study benefits claims problem — yes, the one it had studied in 1978 and ever since. "Long-Standing Claims Processing Challenges Persist," said the GAO’s 2007 headline.
But Principi at least tried to reform it — and whether his "tour" should be counted a failure, according to his own criteria, may hinge on a technicality. When Principi left his VA "tour," he just skated down K Street and became the top Washington exec for a defense contractor and later for pharmaceuticals giant.
So, Principi never did "leave this town." All he left was his job undone. Just like all the rest whom you have paid so well, for so long, to fill the most comfy-cushy chair in the VA.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)gmail.com.)