- - Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Congress says it’s going to “fix” the Veterans Administration. That means it’s time to hold on to your wallet. The Congressional Budget Office ran the numbers on the House- and Senate-passed scheme to address the scandalous treatment of veterans and concluded it’s a budget buster.

In a report issued Tuesday, the nonpartisan accountants scored Capitol Hill’s “fix” at a half-trillion dollars in new spending over the next decade. The House version is even more costly, but the Senate approach includes the step of converting veterans health care into a permanent entitlement.

In the Senate, Republicans rallied to the side of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vermont independent-socialist, who wrote the Senate bill with Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. When Mr. Sanders moved to “waive all applicable budgetary discipline with respect to the measure,” only 19 senators, all Republican, had the courage to vote no. Only Bob Corker of Tennessee, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Jeff Sessions of Alabama held their ground for fiscal responsibility and voted no on final passage.

“I feel strongly that we have to do the right thing for our veterans,” said Mr. Sessions, “but history suggests a blank check for the bureaucracy and an unlimited entitlement program will not have the desired results. Indeed, [it] may even yield the opposite results from what we hope to achieve.” That sounds exactly right to us.

Many Republicans were lured into voting “yes” by the promise that veterans would get a “Choice Card” to enable them to go to a private hospital when the VA hospitals are full or inconveniently located. This is a great idea, but the Senate said no to choice.

Instead of offsetting the cost of the Choice Card by making cutbacks elsewhere, the program becomes an excuse to spend more while maintaining the big-spending status quo. Veterans won’t get a choice, but the bureaucrats will. How great is that?

Under the Senate bill, the veterans can see a private doctor only if they register to see one on the department’s website, myhealth.va.gov. Instead of spending an eternity in a waiting room, they can stare at a computer screen. Someone from the agency must agree the wait is “too long” and approve treatment elsewhere. The bureaucrats who have been fudging the wait-time numbers for decades will decide whether a veteran should remain trapped in the government system or is free to execute a choice. The Choice Card program expires after two years.

The politicians nearly always equate the doubling of spending with doubling of quality. No one can actually believe that. There are 2 million fewer veterans today than in 2006 — “the greatest generation” is swiftly passing on — but the Veterans Administration budget has doubled over those years. The money spent on each veteran patient annually has jumped 58 percent from $16,308 to $25,846, and veterans are still dying, literally, to see a doctor.

Government-run health care gives priority to bureaucracy. The Fayetteville VA Medical Center in North Carolina, for example, has 127 beds for patients and 153 clerks to see that the paperwork is attended to. Every veteran may not get his own dedicated doctor or nurse, but he’ll get 24/7 coverage for all his paper- and pencil-pushing needs. What veterans need is not a larger, more expensive VA, but a focused agency to provide the real choice they deserve.