The VA Secret Backlog Shows A Lack of Moral Courage

Posted on May 5, 2014


I’m not angry with the VA for long delays, but I cannot forgive their lack of honesty and courage… and that lack of honesty and courage is killing veterans.

When a leader is told, “There is no possible way we can do all this,” there are many ways to react. Can we request a bigger budget, more manpower, new facilities or temporary facilities? Can we enlist volunteers? Can we prioritize our workload or contract out the lower-priority tasks?  Increase work hours?  What other resources can be brought to bear on the problem?

Then there is the wrong way to react: “Hide it.” And that’s just what the VA apparently did.

Earlier this year, CNN reported on widespread and deadly delays in healthcare access for veterans at VA facilities across the country. I can’t say I blame the VA entirely for these delays; consider the huge rise in the number of VA patients since the outset of the so-called “War on Terror.” In 2000, the VA treated about 3.7 million patients; in 2008, the VA treated about 5.5 million patients; and currently, according to its website, the VA serves 8.76 million patients per year. Then last year, the VA hit another milestone: there are now more than one million VA patients who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. As of the end of 2012, the rate of influx of new VA patients was about 10,000 per month. How could we ever expect that there would not be serious delays in care?

But by God, you don’t hide such a thing. You report it, you ask for help, you inform prospective patients that there is no room in the hospital and urge them to get their care elsewhere, and by the way, please do write your Congressman to complain because we need the public behind us on this.

But no. Claims have now arisen that the staff at the VA hospital in Phoenix intentionally, dishonestly and systematically concealed months-long wait times for veterans to access basic lifesaving care, placing them on a “secret waiting list” just to make their statistics look good. Why would anyone do such a thing? I will make a wild guess here: to curry political favor (don’t make the boss look bad!), and to avoid penalties (the VA requires its hospitals to see patients within 14 – 30 days).

I will further guess that this mindset rolled right on down from the top levels of the VA,  which stopped reporting patient data at the end of 2012.  If this is how the top administrators of the VA react to an overwhelming influx of new patients, then we should not be surprised that the Phoenix staff was highly motivated to hide their problems rather than reporting them.  What I can’t forgive is the outcome:  their dishonesty has caused suffering and has cost lives.

At least 40 veterans are known to have died in Phoenix alone, as a result of long delays; that much, at least, is not in question. The question is how many of them might still be alive had they been honestly told of the real wait times, enabling them to make an informed decision about possibly seeking other sources of care.

Ethics, personal responsibility, and moral courage were the hallmarks of good leadership during my time in the military. These traits were urged upon us as part of every training school, and were mainstays of every evaluation. They were expected of every soldier.

What a shame that the VA seems unwilling to demand those same traits of the staff whose mission it is to serve those very soldiers now.