They've hung another scalp outside the wigwam of the...

October 03, 1992

They've hung another scalp outside the wigwam of the nation's veterans organizations. Edward J. Derwinski, the first secretary of the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs, was ousted by the Bush administration in its bid to curry favor with powerful lobbying groups, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans. After all, there's an election to be won in just one month.

Mr. Derwinski was bound to draw the ire of veterans groups. He was doing a good job, after all. And that meant trying to bring some logic and 1990s-style reality to the massive, costly VA health-care system -- the largest medical-care network in the country. This didn't sit well with the lobbying groups, which can't understand why soaring health-care costs, a horrendous federal deficit and a dwindling pool of veterans make a restructuring of the DVA so necessary.

Things got so bad Mr. Derwinski was booed in August at an American Legion convention. Even worse, the VFW called for his resignation -- and withheld their endorsement of President Bush. So what did the president do? Did he stand up to the veterans and tell them his secretary was undertaking a thankless but necessary task? Nope. He pushed Mr. Derwinski out of his cabinet.

Mr. Derwinski's suggestions were hardly revolutionary. He wanted, for instance, to conduct a study of the future of the 171 VA hospitals. The veterans groups howled. How awful! Why he might even discover that some of these facilities are so under-used or overly expensive to run that they should be closed.

The VA secretary even dared to embark on an experiment in which two large, rural VA hospitals would accept patients from the surrounding poor communities. Outrageous! Why, mixing veterans with the public just can't be permitted, screamed the veterans groups. They had the clout to kill that proposal in Congress.

So the huge VA bureaucracy, with its $33 billion budget, will keep devouring vast sums of precious health-care dollars. Mr. Derwinski's restructuring plans have been defeated. There will be no attempt to open the doors of understaffed and under-used VA hospitals to other Americans in need of medical care. Or to create a voucher system, to give veterans access to other hospitals in the community.

How wasteful and unproductive. Mr. Derwinski tried to improve benefits for veterans by overhauling a medical-care system that is deteriorating in quality and in cost-efficiency. But the veterans' lobbying groups said no. And Mr. Bush listened. Chalk it up to pander politics, something Bill Clinton also offers veterans groups.

Bush Panders to Veterans

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