WASHINGTON — As Americans commemorate Memorial Day to honor the country's fallen soldiers, a scandal is unfolding that highlights the federal government’s failure to properly care for veterans. Fraud and neglect at the Veterans Administration reportedly have forced thousands of veterans to wait months to see a doctor and reportedly even caused some to die because of a lack of treatment.
In response to a firestorm of criticism over reports of neglect at veterans hospitals that have even caused preventable deaths, President Barack Obama says he will hold accountable officials involved in any misconduct.
“If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful and I will not tolerate it, period,” said Obama.
Twenty-six veterans facilities are under investigation, including a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where 40 veterans allegedly died while waiting for treatment. The hospital there is reported to have kept a secret waiting list to hide months-long delays to get care.
The Veterans Health Administration treats nearly 9 million veterans at 1,700 facilities around the country.
The system has been overloaded by a growing number of wounded Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking treatment, and new expanded coverage for Vietnam vets and for Post-traumatic stress disorder.
But the VA’s critics say reports of staff falsifying records to cover up treatment delays are indicative of a system that is both broken and criminal.
Louis Celli, Legislative Director for the American Legion, said the veterans group wants the president to immediately fire Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, who is a disabled veteran, for failing to change the agency’s dysfunctional culture.
“We know that the Department of Veteran Affairs has had a long systemic problem and needed a culture change, and we thought Shinseki was the man to come in and do that, and we’ve since lost our faith in that.”
Congress is working on legislation to make it easier to fire poorly performing managers at the VA.
Senator John McCain, a wounded war veteran himself, said veterans deserve better. “We must be worthy of the sacrifices that are made on our behalf. How we care for those who risked everything for us is the most important test of a nation’s character. Today, we are failing that test.”
Pending an investigation, the White House is standing behind the embattled VA secretary for now. Obama has said he wants to focus on making systemic change.
“So today I want every veteran to know we are going to fix whatever is wrong, and so long as I have the privilege of serving as commander-in-chief I am going to keep on fighting to deliver the care and the benefits and the opportunities that your families deserve,” said the president.
On Memorial Day, America commemorates the soldiers who fought and died for their country. But this year many also will be talking about the country’s obligation to care for the veterans who fought and survived.