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Opinion

Editorial: Important steps to clean up Veterans Affairs mess

Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, talks to

Robert McDonald, secretary of Veterans Affairs, talks to delegates of the AMVETS National Convention at the Cannon Center for Performing Arts in Memphis, Tenn., Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: AP / Jim Weber

On this Veterans Day, one genuine way to honor those who've served the nation is to overhaul the massive Veterans Affairs health system to ensure that long, life-threatening waits for care are a thing of the past.

That's the goal of the reorganization, called "MyVA," that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald unveiled Monday. A better way of doing things is clearly needed in the wake of the scandal uncovered in April in which workers falsified waiting lists while 100,000 veterans waited more than 90 days to see a doctor.

McDonald, who became secretary in July, said 35 people will be fired and more than 1,000 additional terminations could follow. Anyone who cooked the books to hide backlogs and win bonuses should be fired. The system's 330,000 employees need to know that such self-serving behavior will be detected and punished. The reorganization also will give veterans, including more than 150,000 on Long Island, a single point of contact with the system. That should improve access to the Byzantine bureaucracy and its multiple websites.

But the core problem is that there just aren't enough doctors and medical staff to handle the demand for care. That has to change.

McDonald's goal is to hire an additional 28,000 medical professionals for the agency's hospitals and clinics, including thousands of mental health workers. His proposal to increase doctors' pay and double their school-debt forgiveness to $120,000 should enable the VA to compete more effectively with the private market to get good physicians.

Congress must decide whether to embrace the new hiring or to make permanent a temporary arrangement that allows veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA facility, or face more than a 30-day wait for care, to see private physicians at the agency's expense.

That debate is part of the broad ideological battle in Congress over whether it's more effective to rely on public workers or privatization to deliver government services. That dispute won't end anytime soon, but the skirmish involving the VA must be settled quickly.

Too many veterans have waited dangerously long for care. They shouldn't have to wait interminably for Congress to mend the system that failed them.

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