Don't make Shinseki a scapegoat for the failures of socialized medicine at the VA

Thomas Lifson
Although I am no fan of Eric Shinseki (see below), I am worried that firing him (or rather, accepting his resignation, as it will be characterized, giving President Obama another opportunity to call him “Ric”) will do little to help our veterans, and will gloss over the fundamental problem with socialized medicine at the VA. As Lawrence Kudlow puts it, firing Shinseki would be a “distraction.”

The essential political focus must be on the inherent problems with government-run health care, fully socialized medicine which is the ultimate goal of President Obama and the Democrats, as many of them have indicated in the past. Long waiting lists characterize Canada and Britain, both of which have government-run health care systems characteristic of the VA. In Britain, there are recurrent scandals over unsanitary conditions, as have plagued the VA. In a long and excellent article at Forbes, Avik Roy, a medical doctor himself, makes this point powerfully.

Between February 2011 and November 2012, as many as 21 patients at the Pittsburgh VA contracted Legionnaire’s disease, a dangerous form of pneumonia, from bacteria-infested tap water. Six veterans died. The CEO of the Pittsburgh VA got a bonus. Michael Moreland, the regional director who oversaw her, received from the White House the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, the civil service’s highest honor, and an additional $62,895 bonus.

2013 investigation by CNBC revealed widespread problems with unsanitary conditions and poor care. In addition, CNBC found evidence that VA officials were distorting autopsies and medical records in order to make the VA’s clinical performance look better than it actually was.

“The sewer water comes all the way up to the door of [the] radiation therapy [room],” one whistleblower told the network. “We’d find bone in the instruments from the previous patient,” said a VA surgeon. (Surgical instruments are supposed to be sterilized before use, to prevent risk of infectious complications.)

One VA hospital conducted a liver transplant operation in unsterile conditions after a contractor had cut power. “One of the surgeons came out and said, ‘nobody says a word about this.’” But a whistleblower told the patient’s family that “VA staff temporarily installed dirty unsterile lights, extension cords, and portable air units into operating rooms…patient was exposed to an unexcusable amount of unsterile equipment and workers, along with temperature and humidity conditions outside the acceptable range for surgery.” The patient died two months later, in part from a bacterial infection in his blood.

The basic problem is that the never-get-fired bureaucratic culture of government is anathema to high performance and strict standards.

Coming in the wake of the demonstrated incompetence of Obamacare implementation, the VA scandals offer the political opportunity for the decade to the GOP.  Roger L. Simon sums it up:

With veterans dying while waiting lists are falsified, it’s hard to see government healthcare as anything but incompetent, disgraceful and quite possibly criminal.

Government has failed utterly.  Does anyone have any doubt that Halliburton or even the dreaded Koch brothers could have better handled the health of our wounded warriors? Probably almost any business would have.  There at least would have been some accountability. (It’s interesting to see the quaint Bernie Sanders, the one self-described socialist in the Congress, as opposed to the closeted ones, being the most outspoken defender of VA malfeasance and urging us not to “rush to judgement” on a three page bill.)

But it’s not just healthcare, although it’s certainly prominent, important and symbolic.  The Obama administration has been the best advertisement for libertarianism across the board in recent memory.

As for Shinseki, I have never forgotten the fiasco that ensued when, as Army Chief-of-Staff, he issued the order that black berets, previously the badge of honor for Army Rangers, elite Special Forces troops, be issued to all personnel. This sort of boneheaded “Hurray, we’re all special” diminishing of the achievement of the truly excellent, was controversial from the start, and was finally, after ten years, reversed. That such a man would preside over the collapse of standards at the VA is no surprise at all.

But don’t let one man’s incompetence substitute for the elimination of systemic incompetence. The larger lesson is that market forces are the only way to ensure high standards for veterans and for all Americans.

Although I am no fan of Eric Shinseki (see below), I am worried that firing him (or rather, accepting his resignation, as it will be characterized, giving President Obama another opportunity to call him “Ric”) will do little to help our veterans, and will gloss over the fundamental problem with socialized medicine at the VA. As Lawrence Kudlow puts it, firing Shinseki would be a “distraction.”

The essential political focus must be on the inherent problems with government-run health care, fully socialized medicine which is the ultimate goal of President Obama and the Democrats, as many of them have indicated in the past. Long waiting lists characterize Canada and Britain, both of which have government-run health care systems characteristic of the VA. In Britain, there are recurrent scandals over unsanitary conditions, as have plagued the VA. In a long and excellent article at Forbes, Avik Roy, a medical doctor himself, makes this point powerfully.

Between February 2011 and November 2012, as many as 21 patients at the Pittsburgh VA contracted Legionnaire’s disease, a dangerous form of pneumonia, from bacteria-infested tap water. Six veterans died. The CEO of the Pittsburgh VA got a bonus. Michael Moreland, the regional director who oversaw her, received from the White House the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award, the civil service’s highest honor, and an additional $62,895 bonus.

2013 investigation by CNBC revealed widespread problems with unsanitary conditions and poor care. In addition, CNBC found evidence that VA officials were distorting autopsies and medical records in order to make the VA’s clinical performance look better than it actually was.

“The sewer water comes all the way up to the door of [the] radiation therapy [room],” one whistleblower told the network. “We’d find bone in the instruments from the previous patient,” said a VA surgeon. (Surgical instruments are supposed to be sterilized before use, to prevent risk of infectious complications.)

One VA hospital conducted a liver transplant operation in unsterile conditions after a contractor had cut power. “One of the surgeons came out and said, ‘nobody says a word about this.’” But a whistleblower told the patient’s family that “VA staff temporarily installed dirty unsterile lights, extension cords, and portable air units into operating rooms…patient was exposed to an unexcusable amount of unsterile equipment and workers, along with temperature and humidity conditions outside the acceptable range for surgery.” The patient died two months later, in part from a bacterial infection in his blood.

The basic problem is that the never-get-fired bureaucratic culture of government is anathema to high performance and strict standards.

Coming in the wake of the demonstrated incompetence of Obamacare implementation, the VA scandals offer the political opportunity for the decade to the GOP.  Roger L. Simon sums it up:

With veterans dying while waiting lists are falsified, it’s hard to see government healthcare as anything but incompetent, disgraceful and quite possibly criminal.

Government has failed utterly.  Does anyone have any doubt that Halliburton or even the dreaded Koch brothers could have better handled the health of our wounded warriors? Probably almost any business would have.  There at least would have been some accountability. (It’s interesting to see the quaint Bernie Sanders, the one self-described socialist in the Congress, as opposed to the closeted ones, being the most outspoken defender of VA malfeasance and urging us not to “rush to judgement” on a three page bill.)

But it’s not just healthcare, although it’s certainly prominent, important and symbolic.  The Obama administration has been the best advertisement for libertarianism across the board in recent memory.

As for Shinseki, I have never forgotten the fiasco that ensued when, as Army Chief-of-Staff, he issued the order that black berets, previously the badge of honor for Army Rangers, elite Special Forces troops, be issued to all personnel. This sort of boneheaded “Hurray, we’re all special” diminishing of the achievement of the truly excellent, was controversial from the start, and was finally, after ten years, reversed. That such a man would preside over the collapse of standards at the VA is no surprise at all.

But don’t let one man’s incompetence substitute for the elimination of systemic incompetence. The larger lesson is that market forces are the only way to ensure high standards for veterans and for all Americans.