President Obama can do himself a big political favor this month by saying simply this: "I will not privatize the VA hospitals."
That's the bottom line for the current right-wing crusade mixing patriotic posturing with loathing of government in general and Obama specifically. We speak of allegations that a Phoenix hospital (and perhaps others) run by the Department of Veterans Affairs hid deadly delays for treatment by using secret waiting lists.
The theme is government can't do anything right. And if you're Rush Limbaugh, it's also running death panels for veterans. "There's nobody that has any real-world, private-sector experience running anything to do with health care or medical treatment or medical care," El Rushbo declared from happy orbit.
Actual veterans could not disagree more.
"We're against privatizing the VA system," Joe Davis, national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, told me in no uncertain terms. "To privatize the VA puts us on a waiting list with everyone else out in the United States."
You see, getting medical care can be rougher outside government-run programs than inside them, as contented veterans and Medicare beneficiaries repeatedly tell pollsters.
A 2004 RAND study determined that the VA system delivered higher-quality care than private hospitals on all measures except acute care. (They were even on acute care.) And the American Customer Satisfaction Index, run by the University of Michigan, found 85 percent of patients in VA hospitals satisfied with their care, versus 77 percent in private hospitals.
"The people who receive VA care by and large rave about it," the VFW's Davis said.
But that's no reason not to mess with it, right? In 2010, Ken Buck, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado, said privatization would make the hospitals "better run." Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wanted to give veterans vouchers to shop for care in the private sector.
(Both later backed away from their proposals when veterans loudly objected.)
Now, the latest allegations — that the Phoenix VA Health Care System covered up long wait times by manipulating the waiting list — are serious. But they're still allegations. And so are reports that 40 or more veterans died as a result.
"The story has taken on its own truth," Davis said with exasperation in his voice.
Many in the media are taking the death toll number as gospel truth, but at least one probing reporter, Brian Skoloff of The Associated Press, probed into the sources of it. One was Dr. Samuel Foote, who, before retiring from the Phoenix hospital, was repeatedly reprimanded for taking Fridays off. Another employee raising the concerns had been fired last year and has a pending wrongful termination suit against the hospital.
"What we want is the (VA Office of Inspector General) report, and we know it won't come out until August," said Davis. "Do you want it good, or do you want it now?"
The hospital's administrators vehemently deny the allegations. Director Sharon Helman is now under police protection after receiving numerous death threats.
No surprise, given such hysterical and uncorroborated headlines as this one by CNN: "Veterans languish and die on a VA hospital's secret list."
Here's a sturdy spark to send the fringe right's manic hatred of government into high boil once again. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, summed up the situation nicely when he said: "What I don't want to see is this issue politicized by these same folks who don't like Social Security, they don't like Medicare, they don't like Medicaid, they don't like the Postal Service."
Too late, Bernie. Too late.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)