Have you heard the one about the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) senior offical that lost every last document linked to $1.2 billion spent on prosthetics?
Oh, you haven't? It's great. You'll be howling with laughter. You see, the documents were requested by Congress in September 2012 after it learned that a VA hospital in the Bronx had maxed out government purchase cards, with a credit limit of $24,999, on at least 2,000 occasions. But when VA officials went to retrieve the contracts linked to those purchases, well, they were just horrified to find that Hurricane Sandy had destroyed every last one. At least that's the conveniently conicidental story that former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was prepared to tell Congress, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.
There was just one problem: The timeline of events made no sense. Sure, the VA received Congress's request in September 2012, and then Hurricane Sandy stormed through at the end of October, but VA officials visited the VA Medical Center in Manhattan, where the documents were supposedly stored, in December and then again in January. Apparently, they never noticed the carnage during their first visit.
You're not laughing. Don't you get it? You see, the VA officials were too concerned with covering up billions in misappropriated funds for medical supplies that they didn't even realize their own excuse resembled the structural fortitude of a pasta strainer.
Thankfully (for them, I suppose), one senior adviser did. In an email obtained by the Post, the adviser pointed out the holes in the excuse. By July 2013, the letter to Congress simply stated that "no contract files exist," for the prosthetics.
Actually, I don't blame you for not laughing. Truthfully, the VA has become a sad joke, one too ugly and pathetic that it's no longer funny.
Maybe it never really was. Even the scandal that broke last year, revealing a secret wait list in which at least 40 veterans died while waiting for treatment, was downright horrifying. Of course, the fact that there has been little improvement in wait times a year after the scandal was made public speaks to deep-rooted ineptitude within the department. Even after all that outrage and criticism, wait times are 50 percent higher than they were last year, according to the New York Times.
I'm getting off track. It's easy to do when there is such rambling incompetence.
The prosthetics scandal and cover-up is huge in its own right, not just in dollars—an estimated $6 billion annually in wasteful spending—but in jaw-dropping ineptitude. In his original letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, Jan R. Frye, deputy secretary for acquisition and logistics wrote that the agency operates in a culture of "lawlessness and chaos." As more information emerges, we're all beginning to see the accuracy of that statement.
Frye's not the only one with strong language. During a May hearing about the improper spending, House members verbally abused VA officials in light of the misspending allegations.
"To let this continue and not be furious about it defies anybody's rational thinking," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said during the hearing, verbalizing what everyone who has followed this story has been thinking.
The whole thing brings to mind whiffs of the HBO show "Veep," in which Julia Louis-Dreyfus serves as the vice president (and then president) navigating Washington's hilarious maze of bureaucracy. Everyone around her, from her bag man to her senior adviser, is comically inept, desperately stumbling through day-to-day tasks and then frantically covering up their inevitable errors. It's lawlessness and chaos at its most humorous.
It's funny because it's parody, and because you can imagine, to some extent, that it emulates the kind of fumbling uselessness that occupies certain sections of the nation's capital.
Of course, it's significantly less humerous when parody becomes reality, and those in a position of power are struggling to keep their cover stories tied up in a nice bow, leaving an infuriating trail of neglected veterans and billions in taxpayer dollars in their wake.
Now, it seems, the joke's on all of us. - Evan (@HealthPayer)