THE BLOG
05/23/2014 09:28 am ET | Updated Jul 23, 2014

Firing Shinseki Will Not Solve the Problem of an Underfunded VA

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In 2007, the Veterans United for Truth and Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) filed a lawsuit against Erik K. Shinseki and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Acknowledging the chronic delays and denials of issues like PTSD and traumatic brain injuries by the VA, a federal court in 2012 still decided not to try the case. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "Congress and the President are in a far better position" to address the myriad of issues faced by returning veterans. In 2013, the Supreme Court also declined to hear the case and in response, and the VCS issued the following statement:

Last year, the families of nearly 20,000 veterans were paid disability benefits after the veterans died. A shocking 18 veterans commit suicide every day. More than 12,000 veterans call VA for suicide prevention each month. During our nation's worst economic disaster in 80 years, more than 1.1 million veterans still await VA disability claim decisions. Of those, 900,000 cases wait an average of nine months for a new or re-opened claim decision, plus an additional 250,000 cases wait four more years for an appealed claim decision... While our veterans wait, they remain unable to pay their mortgage or rent, and face great challenges feeding their families.

The VCS also cited "decades of underfunding" as one of the reasons the "VA remains mired in crisis." The VCS concluded its reaction to the Supreme Court's decision by calling for Congress and Mr. Shinseki to, "make sure VA has the funding, staffing, laws, regulations, training, and oversight urgently needed so no more Veterans die while waiting."

The fact that federal courts have placed the responsibility for this dreadful state of affairs upon the shoulders of lawmakers highlights the nature of this problem: it's the fault of Congress. In 2002, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget estimated the cost of the Iraq War to be $50 to $60 billion. According to Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, our country rushed into Iraq by borrowing far less than the war would ultimately cost:

The Iraq War will ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers at least $2.2 trillion. Because the Iraq war appropriations were funded by borrowing, cumulative interest through 2053 could amount to more than $3.9 trillion. The $2.2 trillion figure includes care for veterans who were injured in the war in Iraq, which will cost the United States almost $500 billion through 2053... It estimated the total combined costs of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan at $4 trillion.

The initial estimates of around $60 billion are a far cry from the $2.2 trillion dollars that also includes estimates of veterans' health care costs. Consequently, since the money for wars and domestic security expenditures were funded by borrowing, they've resulted in one quarter of U.S. government debt since 2001. Lawmakers today are for some reason reticent about using the same credit card that funded the wars to adequately fund veterans' health care costs. It's important to note that Tea Party and staunch conservatives who bemoan the deficit in 2014 didn't rise up in unison to question the financial cost of borrowing money to invade Iraq in 2003.

Furthermore, according to Linda Bilmes of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, history shows that veterans' healthcare becomes a fiscal dilemma decades after the wars ends. As stated by Bilmes, budgetary concerns associated with the VA will undoubtedly become an even bigger issue in the future:

History has shown that the cost of caring for military veterans peaks decades after a conflict. Already, half of the returning troops have been treated in Veterans Administration medical centers, and more than 600,000 have qualified to receive disability compensation. At this point, the bill for future medical and disability benefits is estimated at $600 billion to $900 billion, but the number will almost surely grow as hundreds of thousands of troops still deployed abroad return home... Our future debts from the war are not listed anywhere in the federal government's budget.

Bilmes goes on to state that, "the peak year for paying out disability claims to World War I veterans didn't occur until 1969 - more than 50 years after the armistice." Also, since "future debts from the war are not listed anywhere in the federal government's budget," there is no way to truly measure the funding needs of future VA budgets. Congress can blame Shinseki and future VA heads for mismanagement of funds, but if this money isn't sufficient to meeting the needs of millions of veterans, then our country is asking something of the VA that it can't perform. The 2015 budget for the VA is $68.4 billion, but this budget wasn't made with consideration to future costs that historically "peak decades after a conflict." How much more would veterans benefit ten or twenty years from now from a VA budget that currently addresses future budgetary realities?

While Shinseki might have been guilty of mismanagement, Congress is the real cause of this crisis. Elected officials rushed to war without calculating the true costs of caring for returning soldiers. As more veterans die from lack of treatment and attention, firing and hiring a new VA Secretary will only absolve Congress (and lawmakers like Paul Ryan involved in developing budgets and cutting funds for veterans) from its role in creating this national travesty.

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