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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Nice move on health care for veterans, but what took so long?

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Drop the balloons and release the confetti shower. We have a deal that could help veterans get better medical treatment.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that this is an election year and showing compassion to those we sent into battle is good politics.

That’s how you get stories like the $17 billion bipartisan bill that was announced Monday by leaders of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees. The measure is designed, among other things, to reduce interminable delays before veterans can get treatment, and obviously that’s good.

Amid the rare show of political unity on this, though, the uncomfortable question remains: How did it get this bad to begin with?

The truth is, the scandal that engulfed the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t happen overnight. While U.S. House of Representatives members including the late C.W. Bill Young of St. Petersburg, Tampa’s Kathy Castor and Young’s successor, David Jolly, have been fighting for veterans, a lot of others weren’t.

People turned their backs as the nation broke its promises to the men and women we sent to fight our battles. Leaders said we would take care of them when they returned home, but instead we trapped them in a labyrinth of red tape designed to delay and confuse. It was all good as long as the appearance of compassion was there to be sold to the public.

That worked until news reports surfaced about veterans sometimes waiting many months to get an appointment. CNN reported in April that 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment in Phoenix. Some officials falsified reports to make their performance look better, using veterans as pawns in a game of career advancement.

These people lied to the veterans, lied to Congress and lied to the American people. The fact they eluded detection for so long is a testament to the agency’s cynicism and indifference to its mission.

It’s fine that Congress is trying to finally fix this, but shouldn’t the watchdogs have been barking loudly long before now?

War is a messy business for any nation, but officials sell the glory of the battle to the public while sweeping the ongoing costs out of sight. War doesn’t end after the bullets stop flying.

Veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf wars have complained for years about post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA’s own data showed that 22 veterans per day — nearly one an hour — committed suicide from 1999 through 2011.

Officials concede that number may be low.

If we’re going to send our sons, daughters, husbands and wives to fight this nation’s wars, then we have to keep our national promise to give them the best care possible when they return. A nation with any moral compass doesn’t shortchange this issue.

This political compromise is a good step, as long as it includes constant oversight. The extra funding is fine as long as it doesn’t come with a “Mission Accomplished” banner and a photo op.

The VA is a vast bureaucracy in need of a culture change and a sense of purpose. That purpose has to be defined as providing the care we promised, and then enforced with real penalties for bureaucrats who try to skirt the system.

It doesn’t matter which political party is in charge because this shouldn’t be a partisan issue. This is about basic decency and living up to what we say we believe. It’s sad it took a national disgrace to get us there.

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