We should turn our attention to remembering those young men and women who did not come home from war. This is a time to ascribe meaning to their brief lives and ask ourselves honestly if our republic remains worthy of their sacrifice.
Unfortunately, we have to ask some tough questions about the Department of Veterans Affairs and what its current suite of failures means for our nation.
To begin, we must confess that our government has rarely kept its promise to veterans. From the near mutiny squelched by George Washington at Newburgh to the most recent budget agreement reducing pensions to the VA health care crisis, the gap between promise and reality has often been large. This is as much due to unrealistic promises as to the infidelity of Congress and the president.
In judging how bad the situation is, we ought to ask ourselves how big are these promises and with whom are they broken? In the case of VA medical treatment, the circumstances are as bad as they can be on both accounts.
If we get a proper investigation, we will find there is insufficient money and people to treat the health care needs of veterans. We will discover that the quality of care varies dramatically, and the most vulnerable of veterans are the most poorly treated. We will hear that tens of thousands of veterans died waiting for treatment. We also will learn that some of these men are shockingly young and should still feel the warmth of the sun upon their faces.
We will be embarrassed about it as a nation, we will fire a few folks, but we will make no progress on the issue. The real problem is that the VA is a huge, nationalized health care system, and all such systems have a few characteristics we find publicly objectionable. The growing scandal reveals some of them.
First, a promise of nearly infinite health care to any large group of people will have a nearly infinite cost. The cost for World War II veterans peaked 40 years after their return from war. There are 23 million living veterans, and to place the challenge in context, the average Gulf War veterans, most of whom are in their 40s, cost the VA $9,000 a year each.
With no individual choice playing a role in this health care, costs spiral. We lie to ourselves that the promise we made can be kept, and we leave it to the VA to establish treatment backlogs. So, veterans die awaiting treatment. This process, which is employed by all government health care systems, is nothing other than the notorious “death panels” albeit a more cowardly approach. We lie to ourselves that it is not so.
We owe our veterans much, perhaps more than we can give, but we cannot provide them infinite medical care. Disabled veterans are not children. We, better than anyone else, understand real costs. What this nation certainly owes veterans is a little honesty and courage on the issue.
Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and an associate professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.