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OPINION

Put veterans' needs on top of to-do list

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Can we trust the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to do right by our nation’s military veterans?

It’s a question that many of us—veterans, their family members and taxpayers—have considered in the wake of a massive patient care scandal that has rocked the department. It’s time we make it clear to our leaders in Washington that reforming the VA and restoring trust with our nation’s veterans should be a top priority.

Recent reports from around the nation indicate that the VA is in meltdown. In various locations—Arizona, Texas, Colorado, North Carolina and perhaps more—VA officials are accused of constructing secret wait lists to disguise how long veterans were waiting for medical care.

According to numerous reports, veterans died while awaiting care; in Phoenix, Ariz., for example 40 veterans reportedly died while languishing on the secret wait list. Meanwhile, it’s possible that VA officials received generous cash “performance” bonuses based upon the “progress” shown in the falsified records.

Veterans in Virginia have faced their own struggles with VA bureaucracy. The Roanoke VA regional office has long been used as the symbol of the claims backlog. The infamous picture of endless files piled on top of filling cabinets was taken at that facility. It is the most blatant representation of the 19,971 Virginian veterans, and more than 500,000 nationally, that are waiting for their VA claims to be processed. More than 57 percent of those Virginians are waiting for more than four months, and on average each claim is 5 months old.

In April, the VA reported that it had reduced the massive backlog of veterans disability and compensation claims by 44 percent in the last year. Leading veterans organizations like The American Legion questioned the progress, pointing toward higher numbers of errors and appeals and suggesting the VA had sacrificed accuracy for speed.

That criticism now has a renewed relevance. These fresh revelations of manipulated reports and unreliable numbers raise serious questions about the integrity of the rest of the department’s self-reported data. How can we be sure that the progress on the backlog isn’t also the product of shifty and unethical bookkeeping?

On May 15, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee about the allegations of delayed care, fraud and abuse at his agency. As a retired U.S. Army general, Shinseki certainly should understand the principles of command accountability. Which is why it’s baffling that there has been no such accountability at the VA under his leadership. Shinseki declined to answer when asked why no VA executives had been removed for nonperformance.

If you’re like me, you’ve had more than enough. While Washington dithers, the federal bureaucracy is running amok—and it’s veterans and their families who are paying the price. It’s time we take a stand to send a clear message to our leaders in Washington that we expect a remedy to this situation.

On May 24, Concerned Veterans for America (CVA) held a special meeting at the Fairfax American Legion post to gather input from veterans and taxpayers as to how we should respond to the VA scandal. The goal: to push for real reform so that the VA is restored to its mission of serving the needs of veterans, not bureaucrats.

Recent developments at the VA have undermined our trust in the department. But by demanding accountability, transparency and ethical behavior from VA, it’s possible that trust can be restored. The first step is veterans joining together and taking action to demand change.

Kurt Lofquist is a USMC veteran who was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2005. He is a Local Director for Concerned Veterans for America and lives in Charlottesville.

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