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Editorial: VA abuses keep coming, but there is some hope

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The can of worms that is the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs isn’t empty yet.

The VA has been reeling recently from revelations of veterans dying while waiting for medical treatments; and tens of thousands being parked for long terms on secret waiting lists for appointments; and top officials reportedly responding by covering up these and other negligent practices.

In the wake of the scandal that broke this spring, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, congressional hearings are being held and the VA is restructuring its Office of Medical Inspector.

Now, the independent Office of Special Counsel says there is a growing list of viable allegations that VA supervisors within the massive organization ignored whistleblower complaints from employees and even retaliated against them. The complaints were filed in 28 states at 45 separate facilities.

But there is some rare positive news out of New Mexico.

The VA announced last week that the number of veterans on an electronic waiting list in New Mexico has been reduced by more than half in roughly a month – to 482 from more than 1,040.

That is thanks in part to the VA now holding open clinics on Saturdays at the main hospital in Albuquerque and the clinic in Rio Rancho and reaching out to veterans seeking care.

And in several cities, including nearby El Paso and Phoenix, the American Legion has opened temporary crisis centers to help service members get access to benefits and set up doctor’s appointments. Kudos to the American Legion for stepping up to help do what the VA should have been doing all along.

The VA has a history of ignoring complaints and backlogs for health care and approval of benefits.

Last week, New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation fired off a letter to the VA’s acting secretary, Sloan D. Gibson, expressing concerns about the VA’s handling of the recent death of a veteran at the Albuquerque medical center and a lack of transparency in responding to requests for information from the public and their offices.

The center’s Code Blue team did not respond to calls for help for Vietnam veteran Jim Napoleon Garcia because he was in the cafeteria, not the main medical center building. In light of Garcia’s death, the delegation members had asked for a copy of VA hospital emergency policy and staff training materials and other information, but were told to file Freedom of Information Act requests.

It is outrageous that lawmakers elected to oversee public agencies like the VA would have to jump through hoops for basic information. If the information is of a nature that can be released via a FOIA request, then why not just give it to them?

The lawmakers said this lack of transparency only further erodes public faith in the VA and inhibits their oversight of the VA in New Mexico.

Whether it’s the Internal Revenue Service’s refusal to turn over records to congressional investigators in the tea party scandal or the National Security Agency’s secret spying on U.S. citizens, this is just another example of the Obama administration’s dreadful record when it comes to transparent government. Despite the president’s pledge that he would have the most open administration ever, it’s been among the most impenetrable.

The VA’s problems didn’t start under the Obama administration, but he still has time to shape things up if he makes it a priority.

Veterans Affairs has kept the lid on this can for years, and now that it’s popped off the department needs to make sure veterans get the services they deserve and the public and its representatives get to know what’s going on.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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