Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki is out. Embroiled in a weeks-long scandal over the treatment of veterans at VA hospitals, the retired four-star general’s service with the Obama administration came to a close with this announcement by the president yesterday.
A few minutes ago Secretary Shinseki offered me his own resignation. With considerable regret, I accept it.
The move may have been inevitable, as more than 100 members of Congress from both parties had been calling for his resignation. And yes, it may have been necessary. But one man’s resignation is not the solution to systemic failure.
That is why my letter this week goes to one of the leaders in Washington who had the opportunity to address the needs of our nation’s veterans, and chose not to.
Dear Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell:
It’s me, Melissa.
You were quick to praise the resignation of Secretary Shinseki yesterday, and that’s fine. Sometimes the face of an institution needs to change so that the institution itself can change. But I’m more concerned with your approach to our veterans a few months back.Now I get it. When you look at the numbers associated with taking care of our veterans, it can be daunting. The number of veterans right now in the United States is almost 22 million. Nearly 9 million veterans are currently enrolled in the VA health care system, and that system includes more than 1,270 VA vet centers, hospitals and outpatient clinics. Now, according to the VA inspector general’s report, 42 of those facilities are under investigation for possible neglect to veterans’ care.
Which is why, Sen. McConnell, I want to bring you back to this moment – this year’s State of the Union address in January and the standing ovation for Army Ranger Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who was severely injured by a roadside bomb during his 10th deployment. A standing ovation from everyone. Democrats. Republicans. As divided as our politicians in Washington are, it was a moment that made us feel at least on this point, at least on the point of supporting our veterans, as though we had unity.
But then, nearly one month later, you and your Republican Senate colleagues opposed a bill introduced by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs: a $20 billion bill that would have helped to care for and educate our military men and women.
I don’t think our veterans want their programs to be enhanced if every penny of the money that’s going to enhance those programs is added to the debt of the United States of America.
“A bill that was not considered in committee and greatly expands spending without any realistic offset and would vastly overwhelm the veterans administration health care system.”
Overwhelm the veterans administration health care system?
Sen. Sanders’s bill is designed to expand veterans’ health programs, give veterans in-state tuition rates at all schools across the country, and provide advanced appropriations for the Department of Veterans Affairs. But Sen. McConnell, as you well know, the bill never even had a chance, because you and your Republican colleagues blocked it with a procedural move, garnering 41 votes to prevent the funding for veterans from getting an up-or-down vote.
But I want to come back to General Shinseki. When the VA scandal broke and exposed the neglect our veterans faced one of your early comments on the story was this:
“Well, it’s certainly been an embarrassing period for the VA… It has been a stunning period of dysfunction.”
There is one thing we can agree on, Senator. It has been a stunning period of dysfunction and an embarrassment. But not just for the VA–for the entire country–and yes, Senator, for the Congress. It is not enough for Congress to stand and applaud a wounded veteran in its midst. Congress must use its power of the purse to provide the support and resources our vets need and deserve and have earned.
Will it cost money, senator? Yes. But aren’t our veterans worth it?