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VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
VA Medical Center in Phoenix, Ariz.

Grandpa J and the VA

Government | Beware government bureaucracies, but don’t prejudge the motivations of every bureaucrat

Issue: "Day of reckoning," June 14, 2014

Catching up on the latest details of the Veterans Affairs brouhaha, I was overwhelmed this morning with an important pair of ironies—and right beside those ironies, an important caution.

The first of the ironies is that smack in the middle of our all-consuming discussion about nationalized medicine (and for all practical purposes, as we’ll note in a bit, that’s the effect of Obamacare)—right in the middle of that discussion, we’re presented with a grand object lesson showing the vulnerability of virtually any program cast on so vast a scale. And we’re obligated to ask: If Uncle Sam can’t manage a mere subset of national healthcare, why should we even be discussing whether he can take on the whole assignment?

Some folks argue, of course, that the Affordable Care Act is not the same as nationalized medicine—and I’ll concede that, technically speaking, the proposal doesn’t reach quite that far. But there’s little doubt, after listening to President Obama’s audacious goals, that such is the direction he has in mind. And after watching the all-consuming nature of what has already happened even in these early stages of Obamacare’s implementation, who can pretend that healthcare consumers like us will ever again feel that we have much to say about insurance, our private doctor’s practice, our local hospital, or related ethical issues? Whatever the extent of the ACA, my point remains the same: If Washington can’t oversee something like the VA, why should the same set and structure of people be trusted with ever bigger healthcare assignments?

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Irony number two, of course, is to watch our healthcare-provider-in-chief stand there lecturing the nation and the media about the need for honesty and integrity within the structures of the Veterans Administration hospitals. It had been only a few hours since his own staff had been scrambling clumsily to explain to the American public what their president knew and what he didn’t know about the deep-rooted lying behind the current VA crisis. The fit was awkward at best.

I would not be an honest journalist, however, if I failed in this context to report another facet to the VA story. Through family concerns, I’ve had significant opportunity to observe, up close and personal, at least one expression of VA care.

I came into this experience as a skeptic. My father-in-law had spent five years in the 1940s in the South Pacific—but had accepted virtually no veteran’s benefits in the 70 years since then. So three years ago, at the age of 89 and beset with Alzheimer’s, he and my mother-in-law sold their home in Pennsylvania and moved in with my wife and me in Asheville, N.C. In God’s providence, we live only two miles from a wonderfully situated VA hospital. But cynical as I am about government care, I expected the worst when we applied to see if Grandpa J might qualify for some basic coverage.

The paperwork was onerous. And I worried that a full day of traipsing from one clinic to another was taking its toll on Grandpa J—and that asking him for still one more signature might expose his more stubborn side. Our final stop was in a clanky, discouragingly bleak room where he had to agree, in writing, that the hospital could share any and all information with me, his son-in-law. Nor did the woman behind the desk, displaying all the indicators of a bureaucrat, do much to encourage me.

I’ll never forget what happened next. Reaching across the desk, she took both Grandpa J’s hands in her own, looked him in the eye, and said quite simply but earnestly: “Before we do anything else, Mr. Jackson, I want to thank you for what you’ve done for our country.”

I wept. But that brief story is essential here because of its reminder that there will almost always be a difference between two categories of people. On the one side are the bureaucrats who love their high positions, who treasure and protect their ability to strike self-serving deals, and who love to do all that in ways hidden from the public they supposedly serve. On the other side are the foot soldiers within these bureaucracies—many of them sincere and devoted providers, committed to personal care, and just as personally loving as any of their counterparts in private practice.

Grandpa J died this past December—seven decades after the South Pacific. And when I tell you that the VA took good care of him, I can assure you that my report is in no sense just another politician’s spin.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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