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Sunday, Nov 23, 2014
Editorials

Editorial: VA fix a huge expenditure, but a worthwhile one

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The bipartisan deal to spend $17 billion on the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs should help millions of deserving veterans get the timely health care they earned defending our country.

The bill rightfully focuses on driving down the delays veterans face in receiving care and gives greater authority to the VA secretary to fire top managers found to be incompetent or corrupt.

Congress should put its partisan divisions aside and pass the measure this week before leaving on a five-week recess. President Obama has signaled he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

But Congress shouldn’t consider the task done. It’ll take more than money to change a culture that rewards poor performance and may have put veterans’ lives at risk. Greater transparency and accountability is needed among the VA’s top leaders.

Until that happens a scandal will erupt every few years, no matter how much money Congress throws at the agency.

Still, it was refreshing to watch Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, a Republican from Pensacola, stand together this week to announce a potential solution to a grievous national problem.

That solution involves a large federal expenditure, but a worthwhile one considering the sacrifices our veterans make.

Under the deal, $10 billion will be available to pay for private doctors for veterans who live far from VA facilities or who face wait times of more than a month to see a VA doctor.

About $5 billion will be spent to hire additional doctors and nurses, and $1.5 billion will be spent to open new clinics.

The VA operates nearly 1,000 hospitals and outpatient clinics to serve its nearly 9 million enrollees. An audit by the VA this month found 10 percent of the veterans face wait times of at least 30 days for an appointment; about 46,000 had to wait 90 days or more; and 7,000 asked for appointments in the past decade but never got one.

And that’s hardly the worst to be revealed as the scandal unfolded this spring. Sick veterans have died waiting for appointments, and VA officials may have falsified records to make it appear patients were being seen more promptly than they were. Bonuses averaging $9,000 were awarded to nearly 500 top executives, some of them presiding over offices now under scrutiny.

The deal announced this week would cut the bonus program in half, from a total of $800 million to $400 million. But we agree with U.S. Rep. David Jolly that the failed bonus plan should be jettisoned and the money used to expand care for veterans.

Newly confirmed VA Secretary Robert McDonald promises to address systematic failures and restore accountability and integrity to the VA. He will have plenty of money to get started if Congress passes the bill this week.

There is certain risk in throwing money at a malfunctioning government agency as sprawling at the VA.

But in this case, when the health of our veterans is at stake, it’s a necessary first step. And with new leadership, the VA might finally be positioned to put these scandals to rest.

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