HICKS: Promises to veterans too expansive to keep

On Memorial Day, we should turn our attention to remembering those young men and women who did not come home from war. This is a day to ascribe meaning to their brief lives and ask ourselves honestly if our republic remains worthy of their sacrifice.

Unfortunately, we also have to ask some tough questions about the Veterans Administration and what its current suite of failures means for our nation.

To begin, we must confess that our government has rarely kept its promise to veterans. From the near mutiny squelched by George Washington at Newburgh to the most recent budget agreement reducing pensions to the VA health care crisis, the gap between promise and reality often has been large. This is as much due to unrealistic promises as to the infidelity of Congress and the president.

If we get a proper investigation, we will find there is insufficient money and people to treat the health care needs of veterans. We will discover that the quality of care varies dramatically, and the most vulnerable of veterans are the most poorly treated. We will hear that tens of thousands of veterans died waiting for treatment. We also will learn that some of these men are shockingly young and should still feel the warmth of the sun upon their faces.

We will be embarrassed about it as a nation, we will fire a few folks, but we will make no progress on the issue. For the real problem is that the VA is a huge, nationalized health care system, and all such systems have a few characteristics we find publicly objectionable. The growing scandal reveals some of them.

First, a promise of nearly infinite health care to any large group of people has a nearly infinite cost. The cost for World War II veterans peaked 40 years after their return from war. There are 23 million living veterans, and to place the challenge in context, on average Gulf War veterans, most of whom are in their 40s, cost the VA $9,000 a year.

With no individual choice playing a role in this health care, costs spiral. We lie to ourselves that the promise we made can be kept and we leave it to the VA to establish treatment backlogs. So, veterans die awaiting treatment. This process, employed by all government health care systems, is nothing other than the notorious “death panels,” albeit a more cowardly approach. We lie to ourselves that it is not so.

We owe our veterans much, perhaps more than we can give, but we cannot provide them infinite medical care.•


Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and a professor of economics at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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