In the Arena

Where Government Fails

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This is outrageous. As I travel around the country, I frequently meet with veterans, or their family members, who have been stiffed, ignored or mistreated by the Veterans Administration. Paperwork is lost. Claims disappear. It takes months, sometimes years, to get a response. The treatment afforded a new generation of wounded warriors, with a persistent pattern of new wounds, has been dilatory and scandalously inadequate. I’ve faulted Eric Shinseki, the VA Secretary, in the past–mostly for not getting out there, in the public, and making the case for the splendid leadership qualities and employability of the veterans now returning home. I’ll even grant Shinseki the benefit of the doubt on attacking the bureaucratic disaster that he has had to confront. But this whole issue raises an important question about government: Would this sort of incompetence survive in the private sector?

This is one of the central, and most valid, arguments that conservatism has. There is no creative destruction in the public sector. If caring for veterans was a function of the private economy–and I’m not suggesting that it should be–competitors to the VA would have bitten off chunks of the market, perhaps large chunks. There would be an electronic record-keeping system that accurately recorded every veteran’s time and place of service; there would be kiosks, like ATMs, that would give veterans options to pursue the services they need. Iraq and Afghanistan vets with post-traumatic stress would have the equivalent of their own Starbucks (in competition with their own McDonalds)–walk-in centers where they could go and be evaluated, and hang out with comrades, and be treated. If they didn’t provide the services in a creative and customer-friendly way, they’d fold. World War II veterans and their spouses would have the sort of chronic elder-care now being pioneered by Geisinger and other private systems.

But we have little of that. There has been no strong market force to goose the VA into transforming itself to serve a new generation of veterans in a new, computer-driven age. It remains, in too many respects, your grandfather’s VA. I think it’s morally vital that the government provides state-of-the-art services to our returning veterans, to ensure a level of humanity that the private market doesn’t always. This is a public responsibility. And, more particularly, it is the responsibility of politicians, especially Democrats–the party that believes in the efficacy of government-provided care–to demand the rigor that would push the VA into the future. I mean, if the government can’t perform this function–to care for those who sacrificed so much for the rest of us–you wonder what on earth it can do. As I said, this is the strongest argument that conservatives have and it’s one area where I tend to agree with them.