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. Here’s what you need to know and how to talk about this latest crisis about caring for our veterans.

Go to the Strategy Section
Go to the Toplines Section
Go to the Attacks and Responses Section
Go to the Worth Knowing Section

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

Republicans short change our government, then they’re shocked when it doesn’t work.

They break our government and then howl that government is broken.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet, but it’s clear the system broke down. We owe our veterans better.
From what we know so far, it seems like Shinseki’s goals were too ambitious and tried to do too much for our vets at a time when Congress was cutting funds for veterans.
Whoever covered up these long delays should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
But we also have to look at why these wait times existed. Republicans in Congress systematically underfunded veterans benefits just as a flood of veterans came home from overseas.
Republicans are also denying more than a quarter of a million vets healthcare by refusing to close the Medicaid gap. This year, hundreds of them will die before their time as a result.
Congress should be investigating dishonest administrators who cooked the books. But they also need to take a hard look in the mirror.
If Republicans really valued vets, they wouldn’t be taking their healthcare away.

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


ATTACKS AND RESPONSES

ATTACK: “It’s a step in the right direction that Shinseki resigned as head of the VA.”

RESPONSE:

  • Shinseki resigned after regional managers under him hid dangerously long wait times. He did not want questions about his role to distract from addressing the larger problem.
  • Staff at the VA covered up those wait times, and need to be punished for it. But VA staff did not cause those wait times, those were caused by Congress systematically underfunding the VA.
  • The question still not answered is whether this Republican Congress will continue to shortchange our vets, knowing that doing so costs lives.
ATTACK: “The allegations at the VA prove that the government can’t run healthcare and that Obamacare is doomed.”

RESPONSE:

  • Actually, the VA offers the best care around, there’s just not enough to go around: it’s a problem of access, not quality of care. Veteran’s care, once they get it, is consistently among the best in the country, and also the most cost-efficient.
  • The problem is that Republicans in Congress systematically underfunded the VA, knowing tens of thousands of new vets were entering the system and that it would extend wait times. Then some VA administrators tried to cover those long wait times up.
  • Obamacare is a whole different thing: for better or worse, it’s a private system with private insurers and independent health care providers. It’s basically just a law that says health insurance companies have to offer everyone reasonable health care options, and helps make sure all Americans can afford them.
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:

  • The head of the VFW recently castigated Sen. Richard Burr for playing politics with the VA when Burr criticized veterans groups for failing to call for Shinseki’s ouster. The VFW called Burr’s criticism a “cheap-shot” and said it was a “dishonorable and grossly inappropriate” act. The VFW went further saying that the group had repeatedly warned Congress about wait times in the past and those warnings went unheeded.
  • 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.
  • The ones screaming for Shinseki’s head are the ones most interested in playing politics. The Concerned Veterans of America, whose meetings are only attended by Republicans, received $2 million from billionaire oil barons the Koch Brothers.

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.

Systematic Underfunding:

VA Problems in the Past:

  • The VA used to be the best, most efficient healthcare system in the country. This is thanks, in large part to efforts by the Clinton administration to revolutionize the VA.
  • 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.
  • During the Bush administration, some of the progress made by the Clinton administration was undone: claims processing times increased 35% between 1999 and 2002.
  • The results were predictable: When these problems arose during the Bush Administration, however, Fox News was not so quick to rush to judgment. 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.
  • But Republicans systematically underfunded the VA and the system couldn’t take it. A few individuals took some terrible steps to hide the problems.

Allegations in Phoenix:

  • Although excessive wait times for vets are a problem no matter what, the VA’s inspector general has reviewed nearly half of the 40 deaths attributed to Phoenix’s backlog and found that none of those deaths were caused by excessive VA waits.

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.
  • Shinseki’s program to decrease veteran homelessness has cut homelessness by a quarter since the program was announced in 2010.