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OUR OPINION: VA scandal demands attention

This Memorial Day is not like other Memorial Days. That’s because this Memorial Day, the health care system set up for America’s veterans is engulfed in a terrible scandal.

Dozens of veterans have died while spending months on secret and illegal waiting lists, news stories and other reports have revealed.

Complaints about the lists surfaced months ago, but Veterans Affairs officials and the White House took little action.

That’s worse than unacceptable. It’s a tragedy, one that casts a new pall over this most solemn of holidays — the day in which America mourns and remembers its fallen.

Congressmen and Obama administration officials should play their traditional roles in Memorial Day ceremonies today. The wreaths should be laid, and the 21-gun salutes should be rendered with sincerity and grace.

But let these ancient rituals to honor the dead then fill our lawmakers with new resolve to do right by the living.

And let that resolve turn into action on Tuesday morning, as Washington takes bipartisan steps to improve the veterans’ health care system, fire and maybe even arrest those who crafted secret waiting lists and otherwise strive to make sure such a scandal doesn’t happen again.

That latter goal is unreachable, of course. Scandals will happen in any and all health care systems, simply because there are so many people and so much money, risk and decision-making involved.

But today’s VA health care scandals are different. That’s because not only did President Barack Obama campaign on the promise of improved veterans care — “America’s veterans deserve a president who will fight for them not just when it’s easy or convenient, but every hour of every day for the next four years,” candidate Obama said in 2007 — but also because the administration was told last year of the developing scandal and apparently did little.

“I knew about patients who were dying while waiting for appointments on the V.A.’s secret schedules, and I couldn’t stay silent,” wrote Dr. Sam Foote, the main whistleblower in the case, in a New York Times op-ed last week.

“But there was no response to the two letters I sent to the Veterans Affairs inspector general, one in late October 2013 and one in early February.”

Even now, the administration seems oddly passive, with Democrats and Republicans alike calling for bolder steps such as a full Justice Department investigation and the firing of the Veterans Affairs secretary.

Here’s hoping today’s Memorial Day remembrances will shock the administration out of its torpor. Veterans health care is a bipartisan cause; Congress won’t hesitate to take jointly planned, well-thought-out action. Lawmakers should seize on this moment of heightened awareness, and take strong action to improve the health care system offered by the VA.