Valuing Our Veterans

May 19, 2014

Recently a whistleblower in the Phoenix VA hospital alleged that hospital staffers were creating secret waitlists for veterans who needed care so that backlogs were hidden from administrators. In the wake of these damning charges, many Members of Congress have been calling for the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, to resign while President Obama has resisted calls to fire Shinseki. Here’s what you need to know and how to talk about this latest crisis about caring for our veterans.

STRATEGY

Make sure you own up to the terrible management failure at  the VA right away. Then move on to discuss how best get our veterans the care they deserve. Do not suggest that Democrats or the Administration are blameless, but highlight all the ways Republicans have failed to care for our vets–including by denying them Medicaid.


TOPLINES 

There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but it looks like there was a terrible management failure. We owe our veterans better.
From what we know so far, it seems like Shinseki was too ambitious.
  • He inherited a weakened VA and immediately raised standards across the country, expanded VA access for Vietnam vets, and pushed to modernize electronic records.
  • Those were the right things to do for our vets, but with more troops coming home and tight budgets not keeping pace, the system just couldn’t take it.
There’s plenty of blame to go around. There are two scandals here:
  • Whoever covered up these long delays should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Dishonest administrators cooking the books left our vets to die…
  • …But so did Republicans in Congress. The reason the wait times were so long was because Republicans in Congress systematically underfunded veterans benefits just as a flood of veterans came home from overseas. That’s the bigger scandal.
  • If we want veterans to have the health care they deserve, we have to pay for it.
Right now, by refusing to close the Medicaid gap, Republicans are denying more than a quarter of a million vets healthcare. This year, hundreds of them will die before their time as a result.
Congress needs to take a hard look at this. They also need to take a hard look in the mirror, and ask themselves, “do we owe our veterans basic health care or not?”
Republicans who live in glass houses of Congress shouldn’t be throwing stones at Shinseki.
Let’s be clear, General Shinseki is trying to get vets care while Republican politicians have been actively blocking it. Republicans can’t claim to care about our veterans while they take their healthcare away.

 KEY:  Connect with your audience |  Make your case |  Show how your opponents differ


ATTACKS AND RESPONSES

ATTACK: “Shinseki should resign.”

RESPONSE:

  • The question is would that do more harm than good. That’s not clear yet.
  • He said he’s ready to go if and when the President asks, but until then, he’s going to continue to do his best to make this right.
  • Should Shinseki resign, to address the larger funding scandal the President may consider bringing in someone Republicans are more likely to listen to, like David Petraeus or Colin Powell.
ATTACK: “Obama’s been MIA on this scandal and he’s done nothing to reform the VA.”

RESPONSE:

  • President Obama was clear that he wanted to gather all the facts before he started pointing any fingers—including at Shinseki.
  • As for the backlog, Obama and the White House have been working with the VA to address the backlog they inherited from the Bush Administration for some time. And the President’s focus is working: the VA’s backlog has plummeted over 50%.

WORTH KNOWING

Veterans’ Opinions:

  • Although groups purporting to represent veterans have directed harsh criticism at Shinseki, one poll surveying only veterans found that 3 out of 5 don’t think Shinseki should resign, while only 1 in 6 veterans think he should.

Medicaid Coverage:

  • Experts estimate that 258,600 veterans are falling into the Medicaid gap. Statistically, we know that of the millions of Americans that are falling into the Medicaid gap, approximately 10,000 will die this year for lack of access to care. Of the quarter of a million vets in the Medicaid gap, this year between 236 and 568 will die before their time.

VA problems in the past:

  • The VA used to be the best, most efficient healthcare system in the country.
  • But the Bush administration took the attitude that every dollar spent on the VA was a dollar not spent in Iraq (one Bush official said as much)
  • So they nickel-and-dimed the VA:In that environment, people got promoted for making the numbers work, not for providing good care
    • kicked many vets out of the system, a first;
    • charged vets bigger co-pays; while
    • veterans health spending lagged behind other health spending nationwide.
  • The results were predictable:When these problems arose during the Bush Administration, however, Fox News was not so quick to rush to judgement. In fact, it took Bill O’Reilly six weeks to conclude that the Bush Administration had bungled things in the Walter Reed scandal.

A Perfect Administrative Storm:

  • Shinseki raised standards across the board, to shorten wait times for care and claims.
  • The administration let more Vets get care for old ailments dating back to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
  • The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wound down, so more vets flooded the system.
  • Shinseki insisted on transitioning from paper records to a modern electronic system—better in the long-term, but harder during the transition.
  • Finally between 2010 and 2011, Congressional Republicans cut over $1.5 billion in total VA spending.
  • The system couldn’t take it and a few individuals took some terrible steps to hide the problems.

Background on Shinseki:

  • General Shinseki is a wounded combat vet.
  • He was relieved of duty as Army Chief of Staff by President Bush before the Iraq war for revealing how many troops it would really take to occupy Iraq.
  • He is a truth-teller, not a company man.
  • Shinseki inherited a much weakened VA marred by the Walter Reed scandal and inadequate resources. He came in determined to restore the VA and do right by our vets. He immediately raised standards across the country, expanded VA access for Vietnam vets, and pushed to modernize electronic records.
Category: Veterans