During his State of the Union address this month, President Obama made the curious decision to give a warm shout-out to the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans' Affairs.
"We've made strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality care," Obama said. "We're slashing the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits they need."
Here's the real story. In April 2014, CNN first reported that VA employees secretly and systematically gamed their internal computer system to hide a massive backlog of medical care to ailing veterans. While doing this, the officials paid themselves and their subordinates bonuses based on their fraudulently excellent performance.
It has been discovered that this practice of cooking the books at the expense of veterans was widespread, not at just a handful of VA facilities but at more than 100 of them. How many people have been fired for this? You might well ask. The answer is — three.
In the meantime, as the Washington Examiner's Sarah Westwood reported last month, the Obama Justice Department decided not to pursue any charges against VA staff in 46 of 55 known cases in this network of official malpractice. To this day, veterans who were promised benefits in exchange for their military service still have appointments and benefits delayed by malingering bureaucrats.
Bad though these details are, they do not encompass the full extent of this agency's perfidy. Several other scandals were already roiling the agency by the time this one emerged. Top officials in Pittsburgh concealed an outbreak of Legionnaires disease in 2011 and 2012, resulting in at least half a dozen deaths. Other VA officials were caught bilking the agency's pay system by demoting themselves and taking large, inappropriate bonuses to relocate.
And the VA cannot get its story straight about how many people have been fired for all of these failures, as Westwood reported this week. The agency's new secretary and his top aides have contradicted each other. The truth remains elusive — hardly the rosy picture that Obama peddled to the nation this month.
So what should happen? Everyone involved in these scandals should be fired, along with every senior manager in the department. But, this being a federal bureaucracy, staff are protected by a union redoubt, and Big Labor's leaders have fought to thwart legislation to make such firings possible.
That must change, but even before it does, Congress must give veterans a way out of this decrepit and dysfunctional system, by giving them the option of seeing private doctors who can schedule timely appointments.
This is the opinion of Robert Gates, former secretary of the Defense Department under both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. As he put it recently, "if he can't get an appointment with a physician within two weeks at a VA hospital, why can't he go to a private physician and have the government pay for that?"
Why not, indeed?