Americans Sour on VA After Health Care Scandal
Policy + Politics

Americans Sour on VA After Health Care Scandal

Despite their low regard for Congress and President Obama, Americans generally hold positive views about large federal government agencies that have been targets of attacks by lawmakers and watchdog groups.

A new Pew Research Center study out on Thursday showed that average citizens have the highest regard for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (despite questions about its response to the Ebola virus outbreak), the NASA space agency, and the Department of Defense. Approval ratings for those agencies range from 65 percent to 70 percent.

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The Internal Revenue Service not surprisingly comes out as the most reviled federal agency. Just 45 percent of respondents had a favorable view of the tax collection agency that was under attack for its targeting of Tea Party groups in recent years, while 48 percent disapprove of its performance.

The biggest loser appears to be the Department of Veterans Affairs, which saw its once gold-plated standing with the public evaporate after last year’s scandal at a VA health care facility in Phoenix. Veterans’ groups were in an uproar after CNN reported that dozens of veterans died as they waited to see doctors, and that some VA officials had shredded documents and other evidence to protect promotions and bonuses.

The VA’s approval rating plummeted 16 points – from 68 percent in October 2013 to just 52 percent earlier this month.

“Sixteen points is a large drop for a federal agency to experience in just over a year,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at Pew who worked on the study. “They really took a hit, and it appears that the scandal of 2014 about the care they provided, mainly in Arizona, registered with the public.”

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The national survey by Pew occurred January 7-11 among 1,500 adults. The CDC topped the list of eight departments and agencies with a 70 percent approval rating, followed by NASA with 68 and the Pentagon with 65 percent.

The Environmental Protection Agency was at 59 percent, the Central Intelligence Agency at 54 percent, the VA and the National Security Agency at 51 percent, and the IRS bringing up the rear.

With so much public animus directed at major political institutions including Congress and the White House, it’s a surprise federal agencies do so well in public ratings. By contrast, just 16 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is handling its job, the latest Gallup survey reported, while 50 percent approves of President Obama’s performance, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Related: State of the Union: Obama vs. Congress in Prime Time   

One possible reason for the gulf in attitudes: Federal agencies typically deliver direct services, while lawmakers struggle to stay in touch with constituents and try to solve problems when they can.

“It comes down to what these agencies actually do, which is to provide critical and core services,” said Tyson. “Take, for example the CDC. They are at the top of the list from our survey – 70 percent view them favorably, and their mission as their name suggests is to prevent and control disease. These are certainly valued and appreciated by the public.”

At a time of extreme polarization, the survey underscored that Americans – like many lawmakers – view the performance of government agencies through their own ideological and political prisms.

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Case in point: the perceptions of the EPA, the lead agency in implementing the president’s controversial regulations for reducing carbon emissions and other pollutants that contribute to climate change and health problems.

Only 36 percent of the Republicans interviewed by Pew approve of the EPA’s performance, compared to 80 percent of the Democrats – while just 30 percent of Republicans approve of the IRS, compared to 62 percent of Democrats.

“The extent to which these agencies are in the news – and political leaders on either side are making statements or comments or suggesting policies – that leads them to be seen in more partisan terms,” Tyson said.

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