In the 1953 sci-fi horror classic, Them, a little girl is so traumatized by her encounter with a 20-foot long ant that she shrieks uncontrollably when a group of army doctors asks her to recall the event.
At a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Atlanta, GA earlier this year, a paralyzed U.S. soldier experienced something just as disturbing: More than 100 tiny ants bit him as he lay helpless in his bed.
The attacked veteran was eventually treated for his ant bites, as was another veteran at a VA hospital in West Virginia who suffered a similar fate. Eventually, the two infested hospitals were fumigated and the threat of an ant invasion removed — for now.
The incident is illustrative of the ongoing problems encountered by wounded veterans that cannot afford to pay for quality care at a private hospital and must instead rely on the often substandard treatment they receive at more than 150 government-funded military medical facilities nationwide.
The sorry reputation of VA hospital care is nothing new. In 2014, revelations that at least 40 veterans had died at a VA hospital in Phoenix because of extreme delays in processing their requests for medical care caused a national scandal. That opened up a veritable floodgate of investigations into waste fraud and abuse at VA hospitals nationwide – including charges that VA field managers were covering up medical care delays – even maintaining secret waiting lists – all the while collecting fraudulent “performance” bonuses.
The resulting scandal – the worst in the VA’s history — forced a highly respected general, Eric Shinseki, to step down in May 2014. In addition, a 15-member Commission on Care was established to set out a comprehensive reform agenda that led to sweeping bipartisan legislation, much of it propelled by one of Trump’s current Democratic nemeses, Bernie Sanders, who chaired the Senate’s veterans affairs committee, in conjunction with the GOP’s own veterans’ champion John McCain.
Trump has made improvements in veteran care a top priority but he’s up against an entrenched bureaucracy — the second largest in the county after DOD — that is highly resistant to change. In early 2017, Trump signed bipartisan legislation to streamline health care delivery, even allowing veterans to access private care at public expense, in part, to expedite their claims, which have suffered from enormous backlogs in the past.
And in May, the administration signed an executive order that granted the incoming VA secretary expanded authority to fire under-performing VA officials and also makes it easier for agency whistle-blowers to come forward to expose VA waste, fraud and abuse.
But as the latest ant infestation makes clear, it’s taking a long time to detect the full scope of the problem and to identify hospitals that are most in need of an overhaul.
So far, several top VA official has been placed on leave and the VA has announced a fresh investigation into health conditions at VA hospitals nationwide — the same promises it has made repeatedly in the past, often to no avail.
The ant infestation may not even be the worst of the VA’s recent problem. Several VA doctors in Arkansas were recently indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of three patients in their care and other VA medical personnel are facing sexual assault allegations in West Virginia.
Can Trump deliver on his promises of reform? The U.S. Army eventually defeats the marauding ants and saves the Earth, but in many VA hospitals nationwide many wounded veterans are still waiting to be rescued