This month marks 20 years of writing Military Update. I’ve used it three times to editorialize about news events including President Clinton’s sex scandal while commander in chief and President George W. Bush worrisome plan to invade Iraq a month before it happened.
This week I do so again to shed light on a disturbing new force that is confusing veterans and darkening attacks on the Department of Veterans Affairs during the current health appointments scandal. I refer to a well-funded group called Concerned Veterans for America (CVA).
So far one major veterans’ organization, The American Legion, has called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, following a CNN report that 40 veterans might have died awaiting VA health care in Phoenix where appointment dates perhaps were fudged to make wait times look shorter.
I can’t claim to have covered VA medical appointments and wait times with enough depth or regularity to know if there’s gross mismanagement and deceptive bookkeeping at some or many VA facilities. That will be verified, or not, by independent audits and criminal investigations now underway.
Most veterans’ groups continue to support Shinseki. They say they know him well enough to believe he’ll address any abuses uncovered and will work to protect more veterans from harm. And we’ll see.
But in my 37 years covering veterans’ issues, I have never seen veteran issues used more cynically or politicized more thoroughly than during the past several years. At times the intent seems to be to shake trust in government generally rather than to address veterans' needs.
In the thick of this is Concerned Veterans for America, posing as a vet advocacy group and being rewarded for it. CVA press releases usually are partisan attacks. Its spokesman, Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war vet and Republican who ran for a U.S. Senate in 2012, is quoted often by major news outlets without mention of press reports associating CVA with the Koch brothers, libertarian billionaires who create public interest groups to oppose big government. That’s fine. That’s protected speech. A CVA spokesman told me last year it won't reveal donor information.
What should upset vets is the use of select facts about VA and its programs to reinforce fears rather than give reliable information. Last week a CVA press release hit a new low in purporting to document “lies” Shinseki told in congressional testimony, dropping any veil of respect for a decorated, combat-disabled soldier with a long and stellar career.
It is no coincidence only Republicans, including Rep. Jeff Miller (Fla.) and Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), participate in CVA events. They should reconsider. Though CVA sponsors an occasional informative forum in Washington D.C., it produces no careful analyses of what ails VA. The goal seems to be to attack, relentlessly, while a Democrat holds the White House.
Traditional vet groups are alarmed by the rising profile CVA has on cable news programs and in newspapers where informed opinions on chronic claim backlogs and care delays should rule. Instead, there’s heated rhetoric that stirs dissent and attempts to turns the public against a department the CVA routinely portrays always as too costly and too ineffective.
Joseph Violante, national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, a well-informed and thoughtful advocate for vets over decades, recalls being invited to react to Hegseth’s critique of VA on a talk radio program in Wisconsin. He was upset to hear Hegseth contend VA budgets continue to climb despite “four million fewer veterans” than a decade ago.
“I said, ‘Yea, there are probably four million fewer. But they are not all in VA health care’ ” Violante said. “If you look at health care numbers on unique patients, it hasn’t changed much the past decade [at almost six million being treated]. Enrollment has gone up to about nine million.
“But to throw stuff out like that shows they don’t understand what the hell they are talking about. They mix the claims process with the healthcare process and the backlog and wait lists like they are one thing. Every time I see [CVA on TV or in print] the hair on the back of my neck just stands up.”
Long-time advocates like Violante worry that CVA’s arguments, over time, will give politicians cover to cut VA funding severely or even to dismantle much of the VA health care system.
“They have these people out there saying, ‘We’re giving VA too much. We’re giving the Defense Department too much.’ Their whole purpose is to give support to anyone who wants to cut government, particularly for veterans.”
The theme that VA is too costly and ineffective is critical to a message of doubt in government programs. If the vast VA bureaucracy can’t satisfy your medical needs, isn’t it best to get care from the private sector?
DAV, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars want the VA preserved for its expertise and resources in caring for vets. They fear bills to supplement the VA care by sending vets into the private sector for care nearer to home is a first step toward watering down VA quality of care.
Shinseki concedes his controversial decisions to make ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and B-cell leukemia service-related conditions for anyone who stepped foot in Vietnam helped to create the tsunami of claims and health care obligations that has overwhelmed VA, even as hundreds of thousands of vets came home from long, recent wars.
On his watch VA also simplified the process for filing post-traumatic stress disorder claims from veterans of all wars, made compensable more illnesses for 1990-91 Gulf War veterans exposed to in-theater toxins, and launched an aggressive outreach to explain to vets potential disabilities. That’s why the typical claim today has a dozen compensable conditions to be reviewed versus three to four in past wars.
Congress must be aggressive in its oversight of VA health care delays and abuses. But politicians also need to take a hard look at why VA claims and health care have been overwhelmed, and avoid the bitter sound bite wars that give a group like CVA an equal voice with truly pro-vet advocates.
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