WHEELING -- Remember when we learned the Veterans Administration was doing a horrible job taking care of our wounded veterans?
People were angry, even on normally sedate media channels like NPR. For a few days, it was on the news all the time. But then the media suddenly forgot about it and decided that what we really needed to be angry about was the way Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was recovered from Afghanistan.
What happened to the VA? Is it fixed? Or is this just another example of how the media seeks to keep Americans perpetually angry and afraid, without ever actually proposing any real solution? Well, I haven't completely forgotten last week even if cable news has, so here's a couple of ideas on the VA.
1. Link Veterans' Care to Politicians' Care.
This would work perfectly if we could get it done. Make sure that no Congressman, no President and no federal judge can get medical care anywhere but in a VA hospital and you will see those places cleaned out and fixed up before the sun comes up tomorrow. Since the 1992 Presidential election, health care has been one of the main issues in this country - Congress debates year after year about how to deliver high-quality health care to Americans. But there's no debating the lavish care Congress hands out to itself. Every one of our elected officials makes 5-6 times what a front-line soldier makes and gets about ten times the health benefits. Reversing that would be a good goal, but just equalizing Congress' care with that of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines would be a great start.
2. Fund the VA the Way We Fund the War
The medical care our veterans receive is a national scandal. While the press attention has heated up just in the last few weeks, the fact is that we have seen decades and decades of sub-standard, indifferent, and inadequate treatment for America's armed servicemen and women. Eric Shinseki, the current Secretary of Veterans Affairs, a war-wounded veteran himself, has resigned in the wake of revelations that our men and women in uniform are dying while waiting for the care they need, deserve and are legally entitled to, as veterans. Though few Congressmen these days have ever served in uniform, let alone been wounded as Shinseki was, they did not hesitate to lambaste his leadership of the chronically underfunded Department of Veterans Affairs.
VA funding in the past several years has averaged at something less than $100,000,000,000.00. A hundred billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, until you realize we have 22,000,000 veterans, meaning they are getting less than $5,000 worth of care each. For the tens of thousands of wounded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have produced and an aging population of veterans from other wars, that isn't even coming close. It's hard to believe, but the Congress has engaged in repeated efforts to gut the VA budget, sometimes for purely political reasons. Meanwhile, Congress easily found, (okay borrowed), somewhere between two and three trillion dollars ($2-3,000,000,000,000.00) to fund the war. So we apparently can come up with the money when we need it. The veterans need it and they should get it before we spend any more money on new wars.
3. Get a Real Leader at the VA
President Obama finds himself once again in a difficult position and in need of a bold and bipartisan move. Can he finally make one? General Shinseki has lost the confidence of the congress and has to be replaced. While it may seem that there are many choices, in fact, there is in fact only one man for this job and that is former Vice President Richard Cheney. Unlike former President George Bush, Mr. Cheney continues to show great interest in the day-to-day running of the country, commenting frequently on what needs to be done next. His vigorous and active position on the sidelines should be converted to a position of authority immediately and in the most appropriate place, the Department of Veteran's Affairs, overseeing medical care for America's wounded warriors.
Few political leaders have done more to swell the ranks of our veterans than Mr. Cheney. Moreover, he enjoys a powerful reputation as a man who is a "realist," who "understands the military," and who can "get things done." No mission could possibly be more important for him than one, final, mission: to clean up our nation's system of providing quality medical care to the hundreds of thousands of Veterans who need it, as a result of their service to our country. Mr. Cheney remains close to our servicemen and women. One veteran wrote him a powerful letter, before he died, making a lot of strong points about just how closely connected Mr. Cheney is to America's veterans and their situation. In any case, there's no question that Cheney knows how to work successfully with the "other side" when he is motivated to get a job done.
Mr. Cheney has repeatedly claimed that "weakness" in the White House has endangered Americans and their interests in the world for the past six years. While he may not be a 2016 candidate for the White House himself, owing to his age, he can certainly serve, as he has before, in the cabinet, bringing his lifetime of service, experience, and most of all, toughness, to the problems faced by the VA. Politics cannot possibly enter into the moral debt we owe our veterans. But putting Dick Cheney, himself, at the head of the agency tasked with caring for our war wounded veterans would be the ultimate bi-partisan choice -- one person we can all agree on who deserves the opportunity to use his talent to do one final service for his country. A man of his ability should not criticizing from the peanut gallery. Get him in the fight.
Regan is an attorney with the Wheeling-based law firm of Bordas & Bordas.