The American Legion and General Shinseki

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I might join the American Legion! I never thought that was a possibility, though I have been eligible to join for over 40 years. As is now widely known through the national media, the American Legion’s National Commander, Dan Dellinger, called for Secretary Shinseki, of the Veterans Administration, to resign. It was a decision that did not come in haste. Secretary Shinseki has held his post for almost six years. The administration at the American Legion has supported him throughout. But finally, they said, essentially, enough is enough. The largest problem is that too many veterans were not receiving timely and proper medical treatment at the VA hospitals. And the final catalyst for the Legion’s decision was the report – still under investigation – from a now retired VA doctor, that there were secret waiting lists of patients that were not obtaining care of a timely basis, with some of them dying as they waited. This report was brought to light by Anderson Cooper and Drew Griffith on CNN.

And the motivation for the secret waiting lists is not hard to discern. If the “numbers” looked good, that is, waiting times for appointments met targeted goals, the administrators at the hospital received annual bonuses.

And the response from the VA administration concerning these charges? Absolutely none. Check their website. No reference to it at all. Put a phrase concerning these charges into their search engine. Nothing is returned concerning it. The total unresponsiveness of Secretary Shinseki to the Phoenix Hospital investigation, as well as the problems at other VA hospital should be sufficient reason for him to depart.

My own experience with VA hospitals has been extremely limited: one visit. I spent a year in combat in Vietnam, as a Medical Corpsman, with the 1/69th Armor, 1968/69. I was very lucky. I was not wounded, nor did I contract malaria, which one in four in my unit did. And although I spent four months in an area heavily defoliated with Agent Orange (the area between An Khe and the top of the Mang Yang pass), I appear to have no ill-effects.

The US government spent decades denying the deleterious effects of Agent Orange. Reading the biography of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel as posted on Wikipedia is instructive. He briefly worked at the VA in the early ‘80’s, and resigned over a disagreement with a VA administrator who did not consider the effects of Agent Orange any worse than a “little teenage acne.” Now it is the presumptive cause for a list of serious illnesses, and it is the veteran’s memory of what occurred that is the prevailing determinate!

I completed my application for care at the “Agent Orange clinic” at the VA hospital on-line. Then I waited. And waited. It wasn’t urgent, obviously, since I claimed no illness. But finally I called the local VA hospital here in Albuquerque. They told me the computer system did not work! Hum! I’d have to fill out the forms manually. No problem. They mailed them to me, and I returned them. And waited, and waited a bit more. A few phone calls, and voila, I had an actual appointment. And I was seen by a competent physician’s assistant, and given a thorough physical. So, overall, it did work, and if your expectations are low enough, you are not disappointed.

But surely we can do better than this. Computer systems that work, just like Amazon. Paperwork that isn’t lost, again and again, with no accountability. And it shouldn’t take decades, which seems to be part of the “low expectations” game. As is well-known, the commencement of the Affordable Care Act was an utter disaster. But this was an important issue, and so the “best and the brightest” from Google were put on the project, and voila, the website works, in just a few months.

Veteran organizations that “rock the boat”, as the American Legion just has, are essential in order to obtain a VA leadership who will deliver “the goods,” properly and on time, and take an absolute “zero tolerance” policy towards its workers who “game the system” by submitting false numbers, in order to grab those bonuses.

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