June 9, 2014 at 1:00 am

COLUMN

VA scandal threatens big government

President Barack Obama evidently was caught by surprise by the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

So, apparently, was VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who evidently took at face value the corrupt VA statistics — and who, after a distinguished military career, resigned last week.

One who was probably not taken by surprise is longtime Yale law professor Peter Schuck, who identified the problems at the VA before the scandal broke in his recently published book, “Why Government Fails So Often and How It Can Do Better.”

Schuck is no libertarian who wants to do away with government altogether. He says he has voted for every Democratic presidential candidate but one since 1964.

But the federal government, he notes, does more things than ever and gets less respect than ever from the people it purports to serve. There is, he argues, a connection between these two trends.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is a case in point. Writing well before the scandal, Schuck notes that the VA’s budget has more than doubled in real terms over a dozen years, from $45 billion in 2000 to $154 billion in 2012, and that it hired many more claims processors.

“Yet as Congress keeps authorizing new benefits and makes eligibility easier, the backlog (now 900,000 claims) grows steadily worse due to the agency’s continued reliance on paper records, its perversely designed production quotas that encourage employees to reach for the thin folders first, the numerous refilled and appealed claims after denials, and its lax definition of disability to include common age-related conditions.”

Reaching for the thin folders first, it turns out, was not the worst of it. The waiting list scandal uncovered at the Phoenix VA Hospital was not just the product of a few miscreants.

As the VA inspector general’s report makes clear, there was a widespread conspiracy to keep veterans off official waiting lists. Dozens, if not hundreds, of VA employees must have cooperated and colluded.

Each of them knew what was going on. Each knew that they were cheating and violating the rules. Bonuses and promotions hinged on the success of their conspiracy.

So the Phoenix VA Hospital reported that the average waiting time for medical appointments was 24 days — short of the Obama administration’s 2011 goal of 14 days, but within ballpark range.

But actual waiting time, according to the inspector general’s report, was 115 days. That is orders of magnitude greater than the 14-day goal.

When Obamacare was under consideration in Congress, liberal bloggers like Ezra Klein, then at the Washington Post, called the VA health system “one of the most remarkable success stories in American public policy.” It was an example of “when socialism works in America.”

Obama came to office determined to expand government and confident that Americans would like it. Instead, Obamacare, the sluggish economy and now the VA scandal have tended to discredit big government more than any abstract argument could.

Michael Barone is senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner.