If it seems we have been here before, we have. Compassionate, timely care for veterans has been a challenge for our government since the Revolutionary War. The most important development in this journey came immediately after The American Legion was founded in 1919. Adequate care for veterans who returned home changed by war was then, and remains today, the essential purpose of our organization.
After World War I, the mix of federal bureaus and agencies assigned to serve veterans was at best dysfunctional. At worst, it was corrupt. One early director of the Veterans Bureau, an ineffective predecessor to the Veterans Administration, was sent to prison after using government funds to stockpile and resell hospital supplies, including 100 years’ worth of floor wax, on the black market. Mentally ill veterans were warehoused in jails, asylums and abandoned hotels, their conditions undiagnosed let alone treated. Disabled, blinded, poisoned and diseased veterans became the burdens of their families, not of our nation.
The American Legion spent a decade fighting to repair the problem, making and winning the case for just one federal authority to deliver care and earned benefits to veterans and their families. It was both a moral imperative and an expression of gratitude on behalf of a nation that should never take freedom for granted. VA would be that authority.
Since 1930, VA has withstood numerous shifts in health-care delivery, patient demand, politics, technology, budgets and organizational overhauls, including its rise to Cabinet status in 1989. As the leading voice of veterans who use VA services, the Legion has been in the thick of every battle, from soaring demand after World War II to the embarrassing need to improve quality, cleanliness and efficiency in the 1990s.
Over the past decade, VA has evolved to become, as author Phillip Longman wrote in his 2007 book comparing it against all other sectors, “the best care anywhere.” The caregivers, The American Legion and, yes, even our government can be proud that the VA system outperforms all others in patient satisfaction and quality.
When I called for the resignations of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and his two top undersecretaries in May, I did not call for the resignation of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Timely access to VA’s high-quality care has been an unsolved problem for too long. When whistle-blowers revealed secret lists and intentional lies – and that executives received bonuses based on falsified appointment records while veterans were dying in line – it was not time for more study. It was time for change. That’s happening now because The American Legion believes VA is a system worth saving.
Amid all this has emerged a familiar outcry to collapse the system, give veterans vouchers and let them go to any facility that will take them. Such an argument suggests that veterans do not deserve the specialized, quality care VA provides. Moreover, it suggests a willingness to surrender rather than solve a problem. Thankfully,
those of us who served in uniform, often against deadly odds, do not give up so easily.