I've withheld comment until now on the unfolding Veterans' Administration controversy, but with Mitch McConnell taking a moment to stick his turtle neck out of the sand, perhaps it's time to unload some facts.
On Megyn Kelly's show Monday, McTurtle whined about Obama paying too much attention to Obamacare and not enough to veterans' health benefits, while conveniently ignoring his own role in the controversy.
Claims backlogs have been an issue for years -- going back to the Bush days. Back in 2001, before the Cheney/Bush administration sent thousands more off to two unnecessary wars, Democrats were pushing to increase the VA budget for health benefits. In a floor speech, Senator Rockefeller noted that veterans' advocacy groups had requested an increase in funding for fiscal year 2002 of $2.6 billion to serve veterans already in the system. They warned at that time that "more must be done to serve the needs of an aging veteran population, adapt to the rising cost of health care, enhance and facilitate benefits delivery, and maintain the continuity of funding for VA programs as a whole."
Rockefeller further warned that a failure to adequately fund veterans' benefits would severely stress the system. That warning was in April, 2001, after Round 1 of the Bush tax cuts had been passed and before the September 11th attacks. In his speech, he also discusses the fact that legislation was passed to expand long-term care options and to cover the costs for veterans who end up in emergency rooms because they had no immediate health care options but the emergency room.
The problems facing the VA have existed long before the Obama administration. The Government Accountability Office has been reporting on backlog issues for years, such as this 2005 report that warned of "long waits for decisions, large claims backlogs, and inaccurate decisions." The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that "Since 2001, the number of claims received by the VA outpaced the number of claims completed" and noted that "the VA faced an increased demand because older generations of veterans continued to submit claims for injuries revealed by age, new veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan began to pour into the system, and the VA expanded the schedule of conditions covered to include PTSD and illnesses due to Agent Orange exposure."
Fast forward to 2013
Yes, the Obama administration understood that backlogs were an issue, but so was sequestration. Stars and Stripes published a rundown of how Republican austerity would impact veterans' benefits:
VA hospitals and physicians won’t be affected, but military doctors will. For tens of thousands of veterans still receiving health care through Tricare retiree offerings, that will mean the same longer waits for appointments and reduced care that is facing military members.
Ultimately, that could end up forcing more veterans into the VA health care system, adding pressure to the taxed system.
And lo, it happened.
If anything, Obamacare is another safety net for veterans that didn't exist before, and one that could help to backstop the backlog issues at the VA. It gives veterans another option for health care that they did not have before.
So let's see what progress has been made in spite of austerity measures.
Retired General Max Cleland, writing for Politico:
1. Veterans’ homelessness has been reduced by 24 percent.
2. The VA health-care system has enrolled 2 million additional veterans. These are veterans who choose to receive VA health care.
3. The latest American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), an independent customer service survey, ranks the VA’s customer satisfaction among veteran patients to be the very best in the nation and equal or better then private-sector hospitals.
4. In many areas, the VA outperforms the private sector, especially in the management of hypertension, diabetes and other conditions.
5. The VA has decreased its disability claims backlog by nearly 50 percent.
6. The VA is now providing post 9-11 GI Bill educational benefits to more than 1 million students.
7. The VA handles approximately 236,000 health-care appointments each day, totaling 85 million appointments each year.
Finally, the Arizona issues were a result of concealment on the part of the Arizona VA director, who was not meeting benchmarks and didn't want to be held accountable for that. General Shinseki was not the liar, but the one who was lied to.
If Republicans actually gave a rat's ass about veterans' health care, they would have done something before they dropped hundreds of thousands of troops into Iraq and Afghanistan. For them to concern troll over it now is offensive, cynical, and shameworthy.
Mitch McConnell's appearance on Faux News won't do a damned thing for those veterans still waiting for health care, but a little less publicity and a little more action on his part just might. Get to work, Senator McConnell.