The Veterans Affairs scandal took an odd turn after a fight erupted between Sen. Richard Burr and veterans groups over the senator's open letter to veterans. In it, Burr took veterans groups (other than the American Legion) to task for not calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, saying they were "defending the status quo."
Regrettably, the Legion was alone among the VSOs that testified in taking such a stand. It became clear at the hearing that most of the other VSOs attending appear to be more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the Secretary and his inner circle.
The Friday-before-Memorial-Day missive was not well received by Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and Paralyzed Veterans of America, which wrote Burr back. They called Burr's remarks "mean-spirited and profoundly wrong":
If we’ve been remiss in anything Senator, we’ve been remiss in being too polite with Congress. For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hat in hand and for years, we’ve heard the same old story. You can be assured Senator, that you’ve done a superb job in showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials. We will not stand by and let our members be distracted by rhetoric or finger-pointing and we certainly won’t abide our veterans being used as political footballs. And you can be sure that we will let our membership know the low-regard you hold for their organization."
How did we get from a political field day for Burr, a ranking Republican on the Veterans Affairs Committee, to this? Well, the short-term focus on trying to oust Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, believe it or not, has actually expanded into a broader conversation about government health care and resources for the expanding number of American veterans (now in the ballpark of 3 million vets from Iraq and Afghanistan alone).
Despite the scandal involving secret waiting lists in a number of hospitals, on the whole, wait times for veterans in the VA system aren't jaw-dropping. As Timothy Noah and others have reported, the average wait time at VA hospitals might be 21 days, but the wait time in the private sector isn't much better (18.5 days). Beyond that, the quality of care at VA facilities also ranks high:
To conclude from the VA scandal that VA hospital care was poor would be like concluding from Harvard’s 6% admission rate that Harvard did a lousy job educating students."
Appointment wait times for veterans are only supposed to be two weeks, down from the 1995 goal of 30 days. Burr may have hoped for a quick dismissal of Shinseki, but the facts may be getting in the way here.
While Burr is already in hot water, if the attention on the VA scandal truly spreads beyond Shinseki, other Republicans should be wary of the talking point that the VA scandal is proof that government-run health care doesn't work. Despite the heinous aberrations in Phoenix and elsewhere, veterans seem to only have slightly longer wait times than private sector patients and appear to be happier with their care.