Inquirer Editorial: A promise shredded

Boxes of correspondence from veterans at the Philadelphia VA office, apparently unanswered and marked for shredding.
Boxes of correspondence from veterans at the Philadelphia VA office, apparently unanswered and marked for shredding.
Posted: July 21, 2014

Like so much garbage, boxes of mail from men and women who served were marked "to be shredded." Workers changed the dates on forms to cover up neglected cases. Bookkeeping was so sloppy that some claims were paid more than once.

The whistle-blower who reported this malfeasance at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs office wasn't thanked for her honesty. Instead, she says, her name was forwarded to the very people she exposed. The next morning, her car was dented. The day after that, someone tossed coffee on the hood and windshield. "While I cannot prove this was done by the people I reported, I do not put anything past the managers at the Philadelphia regional office," said the whistle-blower, VA lawyer Kristen Ruell, during a recent hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

In spite of the apparent intimidation, Ruell persisted. She and dozens like her deserve credit for the widening investigations of Veterans Affairs' callous treatment of people who agreed to lay down their lives for their country. The department's inspector general and Congress are looking into long wait times at VA hospitals, which may have led to dozens of deaths. The probe is expanding to other bureaucratic backlogs, including pensions managed by the Germantown office. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) has called for a criminal investigation.

Last month, President Obama appointed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to head the department following the forced resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. Stating the obvious, Obama told McDonald, "This is not going to be an easy assignment."

Indeed, even after months of revelations about long waits and forged documents, as well as promises of more transparency and protections for whistle-blowers, the department hasn't really changed its tune. The Inquirer's Tricia L. Nadolny reported that earlier this month, VA staffers snooped on congressional investigators visiting the Philadelphia office, which oversees benefits for 825,000 veterans in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware and pensions in more than a dozen states.

The investigations so far have made it clear that the VA system needs an overhaul. As disturbing as the scandal is, though, it should not be misused as an excuse to privatize veterans' health services, which would make oversight even more difficult and expose the system to profiteering. The department needs honest, efficient management and enough staff to fulfill its mission. That is the least we can do for our veterans.

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