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Michael Swartz / December 18, 2015

The Cost of VA Malpractice

Hundreds of millions in settlements, all while bonuses keep flowing.

Since the Department of Veterans Affairs waiting-list scandal broke in the spring of 2014, health care for veterans has come under increased scrutiny. The problems had been obvious for some time, but the additional attention has led to the VA agreeing to more and more malpractice settlements. This year the provider of medical services to our veterans is on track to pay out well over $100 million in settlements rather than risk even larger payouts for its negligence. Since the beginning of 2014, just a few months before the waiting-list scandal came to light, taxpayers have shelled out $230 million.

While the fund for these settlements is a “permanent” and “indefinite” supply of taxpayer money, the fact that the Veterans Administration has 770 lawyers to handle its legal affairs should give one pause. A VA spokesman, however, said that payouts only occur for about one in four claims filed. Using that math, last year over 2,000 claims would have been made, with 541 being paid out to the tune of $110 million.

And if the monetary aspect of these settlement wasn’t bad enough, those who created the problems are being allowed to escape accountability. “The key question VA leaders must now answer is ‘who will be disciplined for the wrongdoing and when?’” asked Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Unfortunately, it seems the bureaucrats at the agency are more interested in covering their behinds and allowing supervisors to punish whistleblowers than make improvements. Not only is that hindering the needed reforms, but it’s also a surefire way to depress morale. People are more inclined to look the other way and shrug their shoulders if they see courageous colleagues being demoted, assigned to undesired duties, or simply fired. Meanwhile, since there’s no record of wrongdoing from the cases that were settled, supervisors can claim a clean slate and qualify for bonuses they may not deserve. Two supervisors at the Arizona facility where the scandal began are still on the VA payroll — one on the job, the other on paid leave — despite a probe that recommended both be fired or punished.

There’s a long way to go on VA reform, with some calling for a “system-wide reworking.” But there is good news for a select few veterans in time for the holidays.

The VA determined that 45 paralyzed veterans are eligible for a new robotic leg device that can enable them to stand and walk again. The ReWalk device is promising, but height and weight requirements (as well as a $77,000 price tag) preclude more than a handful of the thousands of paralyzed veterans from being able to use the device. But it’s a promising start and a ray of hope for those who never thought they’d walk again.

Think of it this way: If the VA can clean up its act and buy ReWalk devices instead of paying for its negligence, perhaps another 1,500 veterans can stand up for their VA benefits each year.

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