It’s easy to cast blame for the VA crisis on leadership in Washington, D.C., yet many of those who led the call for Eric Shinseki’s resignation are the exact same people who will tell you that the solutions to the nation’s problems are not to be found in Washington. So I wonder–why are we settling for easy scapegoats here? And why are we expecting the Department of Veterans Affairs–a large, massive bureaucracy that has been plagued with problems since its inception–to somehow be able to fix itself?
Here’s the thing: the Veterans Health Administration (merely one component of the numerous programs the VA administers) is the nation’s largest integrated health system, operating 150 medical centers and 1,400 community-based outpatient clinics (plus other facilities as well) in all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, the Philippines, and American Samoa. Yet somehow we’re expecting Washington, D.C., to keep tabs on all of these facilities all by their lonesome, and we’re willing to hold the guy at the top entirely responsible for faraway locations that were essentially lying to administrators in D.C. Meanwhile, we have designated offices in our local and state governments that are tasked with ensuring the welfare of their veterans. My question is this: why are we not asking why local and state veterans affairs offices didn’t know what was happening to the veterans they are directly responsible for? Why do local and state officials not bear any responsibility here?
Veteran reintegration and welfare begin at home. It takes families and local communities to know who their veterans are, to identify gaps between the needs of those veterans and the benefits and services they’re able to access, and to make those gaps known. For example, the Phoenix VA had stunningly egregious problems in scheduling veterans for critical appointments. This is now well-known. But less discussed is the fact that the City of Phoenix has a Military Veterans Commission that meets at least quarterly to advise the Phoenix City Council on “all matters pertaining to the affairs of military veterans residing within the City of Phoenix.” So where were those guys? Did they know this was happening to local veterans? Did they bring this up to the Phoenix City Council, or Phoenix’s Congressional delegation in D.C., or to VA administrators either locally or in D.C.? It is one thing for administrators in Washington, D.C., to be lied to. But it’s another thing to me if local officials charged with veterans’ affairs had no idea what’s happening to the veterans right in front of them. And if that wasn’t enough, the Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services is also based right there in Phoenix. They allegedly go to work every day for veterans–yet apparently had no idea what was happening right down the street from them.
I am all for accountability–but as we demand accountability for VA officials, let’s not forget the many other public officials we pay to ensure veterans at the state and local levels can access their benefits. American government works because we have overlap between federal, state, and local governments. The job of government is vast, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for communities, counties, states, and regions as diverse and divergent as those found across our nation. And for that reason, we also rely on partnerships between government, the private sector, and nonprofits to ensure the delivery of benefits and critical services like those related to veterans.
For example, in NYC, while we do not currently have a very effective Mayor’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs, we do have a robust community of service providers across the VA, nonprofits, and private organizations that come together in coalitions and other collaborative efforts that strive to find under-served veterans and ensure that all NYC-area veterans receive the benefits they’ve earned and get a helping hand if they need one. Solid, effective national policy is important, but ultimately local people are best suited to find local solutions for local problems. Local and state officials can easily connect with those providing for veterans in their communities, as well as veterans’ organizations and veterans themselves–which should, in turn, empower more effective policy and accountability at all levels of government. Or so you’d think.
We must demand accountability at the local and state levels, and we must insist on open channels of communication to identify problems at the state and local levels and to raise those problems up to administrators and lawmakers in Washington. Why have we made it so easy for members of Congress to call for Shinseki’s resignation, meanwhile absolving themselves of any responsibility to know what’s happening to veterans in their own states and districts before it becomes a crisis in the national news?
The longer we wait for Washington to fix Washington’s problems, the longer we are failing to take responsibility for what is happening in our own communities. Government is never going to have all the answers, and neither is the private sector, nor the nonprofit sector. We all have to work together to ensure no veteran is left behind. But when we’re looking for accountability in government programs–let’s look at the whole of government.
If the veterans’ affairs offices in our state and local governments do not have their finger on the pulse of the quality and accessibility of care that veterans receive in our VA medical centers–then we should be asking why that is. Local solutions, America. That’s what we’re good at. So let’s get on it.