- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

Eric K. Shinseki won’t resign. The head of the Department of Veterans Affairs assured senators on Thursday that he would fix the bureaucracy that allowed 40 ailing veterans to die waiting for treatment at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix.

“It makes me as mad as hell,” said Mr. Shinseki. “I could use stronger language here, but in deference to the committee, I won’t.”

We don’t question the sincerity of a combat veteran with a distinguished career. He would never allow his brothers in arms to suffer if he could help it. What we do question is whether the government knows how to provide effective health care.

As skeptical observers noted when President Obama first peddled his health care takeover a few years ago, putting the government in charge inevitably leads to a shortage of doctors, bureaucratic interference in the doctor-patient relationship, and rationing of health care. What we’re seeing at Veterans Affairs is a sign of what’s inevitably to come under Obamacare.

Investigations are proceeding at VA hospitals across the country as whistleblowers step forward with tales of endless waits for veterans who need care at once. In a report last month, the Government Accountability Office found that in a third of cases reviewed, it took up to 210 days for a patient to schedule a colonoscopy. In 4 of 10 veterans needing physical therapy, the wait was up to 152 days.

To find the origin of the scandal, the department’s inspector general will have to fight an internal bureaucracy that has no intention of cooperating. There’s evidence that records were manipulated, not just to conceal the wait, but to create the false appearance that the department has been providing timely care. According to emails obtained by the daily Arizona Republic, a VA employee questioned what was going on around him.

“I think it’s unfair to call any of this a success,” wrote Damian Reese, a program analyst, “when veterans are waiting six weeks on an electronic waiting list before they’re called to schedule their primary appointment. Sure, when their appointment was created, [it] can be 14 days out, but we’re making them wait 6 to 20 weeks to create that appointment. That is unethical and a disservice to our veterans.” The VA’s top priority, he said, is to look good to outside observers.

This doesn’t look so good now to Congress. Irritated that the agency’s 54 public relations officers are unwilling to answer basic questions about what’s going on, the House Veterans Affairs Committee voted last week to subpoena records related to the waiting list. Committee members have been placed on a wait list of their own — 62 requests for information have been pending for more than two months.

The American Legion demands Mr. Shinseki’s resignation, but it’s not clear that a changing of the guard would actually change anything. The problem is a bureaucracy that cares more about self-enrichment than serving those who risked their lives for the nation.

Stories abound of fat bonuses paid to the VA officials who presided over these dismal failures, while tens of thousands of dollars were spent on interior decorating. What’s happening to our veterans is unforgivable and deplorable, but 20-week waits to see a doctor may be what’s ahead for the rest of us.