THE BLOG
03/06/2007 10:47 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

We're All at Walter Reed

There's another side to the unfolding scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other Veterans Administration facilities. The Bush administration's attitude toward our wounded veterans parallels its behavior toward the rest of our healthcare system - neglect, inadequate funding, and privatization.

It also illustrates a disturbing pattern of misplaced priorities, record spending on a disastrous war while our healthcare security for veterans and millions of other Americans is left behind.

For those who have missed the headlines, or are just too horrified to read the details, here's a snapshot of the administration's greatest domestic disaster since Katrina.

It starts with brutally substandard care and abandonment of tens of thousands of veterans, not just at Walter Reed, but at VA hospitals and clinics around the country, as the Washington Post has revealed in ghastly detail.

Second, starving the VA. Since 2001, as Paul Krugman reported in the New York Times, federal allocations for veterans medical care lag behind overall healthcare spending, rather stunning when you consider we have sent 1.5 million of our young men and women to Iraq and Afghanistan and over 184,000 have sought VA care after serving.

There's more. Due to funding cuts, some 263,257 veterans were denied enrollment for Veterans Administration health coverage in 2005. To cut costs, enrollment has been suspended for those deemed not having service-related injuries or illnesses. So much for the guarantee of lifetime healthcare. And, if all the other indignities were not enough, some Walter Reed patients had to buy their own meals.

The final piece of this unholy troika is privatization. As the Army Times notes, Walter Reed handed a five-year $120 million contract to a private company run by an ex-Halliburton executive. The contracting out of support services was followed by a mass exodus of support personnel.

Now if you think this is an aberration, look at other ways our healthcare safety net is being dismantled.

Since President Bush arrived in Washington, the number of uninsured has ballooned by 11%. It's not much better for the insured. Nearly half say their insurer has refused to pay a medical bill they received, about a third say they have hesitated seeking needed care due to cost. Today half of all bankruptcies, and a third of credit card debt, is directly linked to medical bills.

Concurrently, the number of public hospitals in America has fallen by 30% the past 30 years, a period in which the combined debt of state and local governments has grown by 852% to nearly $200 billion.

It's affecting huge proportions of our population. New York is preparing to close or merge dozens of hospitals, and Chicago officials just signed off on plans to shut or downsize 19 community and school based clinics.

The U.S. spends more, far more, on health care than any other nation, but much of it is diverted into the pockets of corporate CEOs, gobbled up in record profits for the healthcare industry, and consumed by administrative waste. Just last week the commission that advises Congress on Medicare reported that Medicare has to spend 12% more for care that is administered through private insurers than through traditional Medicare.

Meanwhile the healthcare lobby cheerleads for more privatization, and the Bush Administration, joined by a number of politicians and even some advocacy groups, argue that the solution to our healthcare nightmare is more private insurance, not more healthcare.

Then there's the war. While the Walter Reed disgrace was heating up, the Administration was back on Capitol Hill, hat in hand, not for our veterans or the families who have to hold garage sales for their children's health. It was seeking another $142 billion in additional war funding.

The same $142 billion would pay for 8.7 million hospital stays for heart attack victims. It's also nearly four times what the administration has proposed this year for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Overall, the President's request for funding this year and next would bring the total consumed by the war since 2003 to $589 billion, an amount that would buy health insurance for 139 million people, all of the nation's uninsured for the next three years.

These funding strains also add to the disparity in healthcare indicators between the U.S. and other industrialized nations.

Our nation trails 36 other countries in the mortality rate for adults ages 15 to 60, 31 countries in infant mortality, and ranks just 26th in the mortality rate for cardio vascular disease. Yet we spend far more in defense, nearly four times as much of our gross domestic product as Japan, Canada and Spain, three of the countries ahead of us in most health barometers.

All those nations, of course, also have some form of guaranteed universal healthcare system, sort of an expanded Medicare as has been proposed for the U.S. in HR 676. The public is ready for it. The latest New York Times/CBS poll found that 64% said the government should guarantee health insurance for all, 55% identified it as the top domestic priority for Congress and the President.

The Bush Administration can fire a general or two, but until it shows the same commitment to caring for the war wounded and the rest of our nation's health that it does in waging war, Walter Reed will just be another name on a growing list of shame.