The right’s sad VA hypocrisy: Limbaugh and co.'s desperate Obamacare ploy

With their anti-Obamacare 2014 campaign in tatters, hucksters like Rush want to use vets' suffering to score points

Published May 20, 2014 5:39PM (EDT)

Rush Limbaugh                                (AP/Julie Smith)
Rush Limbaugh (AP/Julie Smith)

Right-wingers are wily. Stuck with a GOP anti-Obamacare strategy that’s failed, as the program enrolls more people and gets more popular, they’re repurposing their rhetoric for the troubles in the Department of Veterans Affairs. In Phoenix, and maybe elsewhere, unconscionable wait times for care may have contributed to veterans’ deaths, and staffers tried to cover up what happened.

What should be done about it? Use the tragedy to try to turn people against the Affordable Care Act, of course.

“Lengthy wait times, bureaucratic abuse, rationed care: par for the course in government-run health care,” John Fund writes in the National Review. Rush Limbaugh, of course, took it further, calling the VA tragedy a “microcosm” of Obamacare. “We still gotta find a way to convince people that this Obamacare can’t work and that everybody’s headed for a similar potential as these deaths in the VA.” He went on to blast VA “death panels,” and predictably, Sean Hannity later echoed his “death panel” rhetoric on his radio show.

There’s real trouble at the VA, but there’s bigger trouble for the Republican Party, which purports to love veterans but does little to help them. Thom Hartman recently ran down the list of pro-veteran measures the GOP has blocked. Earlier this year Senate Republicans filibustered a bill to boost VA funding by $21 billion and restore military pensions cut in the Murray-Ryan budget deal. They opposed President Obama’s $1 billion jobs bill to put unemployed vets to work in 2012. They’ve killed bills to help homeless veterans and promote vets’ entrepreneurship.

And in the current crisis, there’s yet to be a genuine GOP answer to the problems at the VA, beyond anti-Obama grandstanding. Do they want to voucherize veterans’ health care, like they do Medicare? Abolish the VA entirely? “Privatize” it, whatever that would mean?

I recognize that former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole isn't representative of today’s Republican Party. But it’s worth noting that he’s defending Secretary Eric Shinseki. Dole harks back to a time when defending and improving the VA was a bipartisan affair. He still thinks it should be: “We do more in this country than any country in the world. And I think what we’re experiencing now – it may be a culture at the VA that’s developed in the last 10 to 20 years,” Dole said. “If you eliminate this hospital problem, I think we take pretty good care of our veterans and I spend a lot of time – and did in the Congress, working on veterans and veterans’ issues, veterans’ benefits.”

The VA has  real problems, but they predate Obama, and they're largely the result of fighting two wars while Vietnam veterans age. Right now the VA serves almost 10 million vets, and as retired Col. Christopher Holshek writes today in the Huffington Post, Shinseki's Department of Veterans Affairs has actually reduced the care back log from 600,000 when he took over to somewhere near 320,000. It’s still too high, but it’s also wrong to say the VA does nothing right. An overview of Rand Corporation studies found that the VA outperformed private hospitals on many counts, and concluded the agency has much to teach the private sector when it comes to providing managed care.

That doesn’t mean the current problems aren’t real, or the agency doesn’t need oversight. But the right has nothing to offer besides repurposed anti-Obamacare rhetoric. Having failed to turn the IRS mess or the Benghazi tragedy into nationally galvanizing scandals, they’re trying again. Limbaugh is at least honest about why: his Obamacare scare-mongering has failed.

“A lot of people are trying to figure out ways to persuade people [Obamacare] isn’t gonna work," he admitted on his show. "No matter how big anybody’s heart is, no matter how much they care, here is a microcosm of what Obamacare is gonna be if it’s fully implemented. And the reason you want to tell ‘em that is because you want to gin up as much popular support for repeal of this as you can.”

Got it, GOP? You want to “gin up” political trouble for the Affordable Care Act by using veterans’ suffering and death to your political ends. That should go well.

By Joan Walsh