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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Congress keeps wolves at bay

Telegraph Editorial

There is a lot of shame hanging off a bill Congress passed last week to reform the Veterans Affairs system that provides health care for our nation’s veterans.

It contains about $17 billion and represents a compromise between the House version that proposed spending $10 billion, and the Senate version that sought $24 billion. ...

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There is a lot of shame hanging off a bill Congress passed last week to reform the Veterans Affairs system that provides health care for our nation’s veterans.

It contains about $17 billion and represents a compromise between the House version that proposed spending $10 billion, and the Senate version that sought $24 billion.

The Senate passed the final version on a vote of 91-3 on Thursday, after the House had approved it the day before on a vote of 420-5.

The good news is that the bill will help, to be sure. In New Hampshire, Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte staged a joint meeting last week at Merrimack VFW Post 8461 to talk about the bill, which would allow veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility to be treated by physicians outside the VA system. Veterans in New Hampshire – one of just two lacking a VA medical center – can get outside help if they live more than 20 miles from a medical center, or if they can’t get an appointment within the wait-time goals proscribed by the VA’s own regulations.

The bill also included $5 billion to hire more VA doctors and language to make it easier for the president to fire VA executives for poor performance.

After the VA bill passed, there was a lot of crowing about the “bipartisan” effort that led to passage, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the shameful circumstances that made the legislation necessary in the first place: Reports of veterans not being able to get timely appointments, attempts by VA officials to cover delays so they could collect bonuses, and further reports that some people died while waiting to be seen by VA doctors.

The country, including members of Congress, was horrified by the reports.

But let’s be honest about last week’s votes: They weren’t really about helping our country’s veterans. If they were, the bill to reform the VA would have passed weeks ago, rather than languishing amid the usual gridlock of partisan Washington.

The shameful truth is, a lot of those votes were cast largely out of fear. Members of Congress were afraid of what might happen – how it would look – if they went on their five-week August recess without passing the veterans bill.

The sense of urgency in Congress was also helped along by a message from the national commander of the VFW.

“Pass a bill or don’t come back from recess,” William A. Thien warned members of Congress last month. “America’s veterans are tired of waiting – on secret waiting lists at the VA and on their elected officials to do their jobs.”

Faced with incurring the wrath of veterans’ organizations, members passed the measure because they wanted to keep their jobs. They were rightfully afraid that going on vacation without passing it would be an act of political suicide. Absent that looming wrath, it seems likely that the thing could have dragged on indefinitely.

It’s also worth noting that it’s only a short-term fix. As Sen. John McCain said after the vote, “This bill is a beginning – not an end – to the efforts that must be taken to address this crisis.”

But this is Congress we’re talking about, so don’t count on it being anything more than a standalone measure taken to keep the wolves – we prefer to call them voters – from the door.

Still, in today’s political environment, there is credit to be taken for not doing nothing, and members of Congress want voters to pat them on the back for doing something they could and should have done weeks ago.

That’s a little hard to swallow, especially considering that they couldn’t summon the courage to do what needed to be done until they had the proverbial gun held to their heads.