Today in America veterans are dying — not at the hands of a foreign enemy but through the neglect of the very country they served. Many of them put themselves in harm’s way in foreign lands so we can live peaceful lives back home. They did so secure in the promise that America takes care of her veterans.
Sadly, that promise is being broken.
The case of Navy veteran Thomas Breen is a sad reminder of this. In the weeks leading up to his death, Breen’s family tried desperately to get him an appointment at the Phoenix VA Medical Center. It had been more than a month since he was rushed to the emergency room with serious symptoms of cancer. Sadly, Breen passed away on Nov. 30, 2013. A week later, the VA hospital called with his appointment time.
This is not an isolated case. According to a former VA doctor interviewed by CNN, no fewer than 40 veterans have died while waiting for appointments with the Phoenix VA. These tragedies are apparently the result of a scheme designed to give the appearance of providing speedy care, while covering up the fact that veterans were forced to wait months for appointments.
As if that weren’t bad enough, high-level officials in the Phoenix VA system knew this was going on and did nothing about it. Actually, it gets worse: Not only did the Phoenix officials tolerate this scheme — they outright defended it.
And the problem goes well beyond Phoenix. In Pittsburgh, for example, six patients at a VA hospital died and more than 20 others at the same hospital became sick after an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease due to contaminated water. As in Phoenix, patients at the Pittsburgh facility were kept in the dark about what was going on. Doctors and staff were aware of a potential contamination, but the veterans and their families were not informed.
This all unfolds against the backdrop of alarmingly high numbers of veteran suicides and a massive backlog of disability-compensation claims at the VA. As of April 26, there were more than 596,000 claims pending nationwide, and a majority of those had been pending for more than 125 days. More than 51,000 of these claims are pending before just two VA regional offices — those in Houston and Waco.
To be clear, this isn’t an excuse for the fatal mismanagement that occurred in Phoenix and Pittsburgh. Rather, it’s an extended symptom of the VA’s inability to uphold its commitment to veterans. Like many problems in government, the solution requires greater accountability and transparency. I’ve co-sponsored legislation that enhances both.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, introduced by Sen. Marco Rubio, empowers the secretary of veterans affairs to take swift action to remove senior officials within the department whose performance (or lack thereof) merits it. When such cases arise, the VA would be required to notify Congress — and, by extension, the American people. This would prevent the VA from using bureaucratic smoke and mirrors to conceal mismanagement.
With veterans’ lives on the line, time is absolutely of the essence. The death of any veteran as a direct result of inadequate care — including inadequate mental health care — is inexcusable. And with Texas home to a very large military population, the matter is all the more pressing for our state.
America’s obligation to her veterans isn’t just a legal one; it’s a moral one. Our men and women in uniform serve our country honorably. They do so based on a promise that when they come home, their country will be there to lend them a helping hand. They’re upholding their end of the bargain; America needs to uphold hers.
John Cornyn, Republican, is the senior U.S. senator for Texas, serving since 2002. He is Senate minority whip.