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DANA MILBANK: VA chief Shinseki should go

Washington Post Writers Group Published: May 18, 2014 4:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Eric Shinseki served his country honorably as a twice-wounded officer in Vietnam, as Army chief of staff, and finally as President Obama's secretary of veterans affairs.

But his maddeningly passive response to the scandal roiling his agency suggests that the best way Shinseki can serve now is to step aside.

Reports have documented the deaths of about 40 veterans in Phoenix waiting for VA appointments -- the latest evidence of widespread use of bookkeeping tricks at the agency to make it appear that veterans are not waiting as long for care as they really are. The abuses have been documented over several years by whistle-blowers and leaked memoranda, and confirmed by a host of government investigators.

That's bad enough. Worse was Shinseki's response when he finally appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to answer questions about the scandal. He refused to acknowledge any systemic problem, and declined to commit to do much of anything, insisting on waiting for the results of yet another investigation.

"If any allegations are true," Shinseki told the Senate veterans affairs committee, "they're completely unacceptable to me."

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"If any are substantiated by the inspector general," he said, "we will act."


Is there not already evidence of VA appointment schedulers cooking the books?

"I'm not aware other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that," Shinseki told the senators.

How about the September 2013 letter to President Obama from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel describing abuses that had been documented by the Office of Medical Inspector?

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"I can't say that I remember it."

And is he not aware of the April 2010 memo by the deputy undersecretary for health at the VA describing "gaming strategies" being used at VA facilities for medical appointments?

"I was not. I am not."

Would he change his management team, given the evidence of systemic failures over years?

"I don't want to get ahead of myself."

Is he concerned about a VA culture of circumventing rules?

"I'm sure someplace in a large organization, you're always going to have something like that."

Shinseki's denial and sluggish response to an obvious problem (his department tarried eight days before complying with a House committee's request to preserve documents for review) is reminiscent of the whitewash of the neglect of wounded troops at Walter Reed. This isn't some phony, Republican-hyped allegation aimed at embarrassing the White House and inflicting political damage; this looks to be a serious and long-standing problem, where official wrongdoing has led to needless deaths.

The Government Accountability Office and others have been warning for a few years of problems with the waiting lists at VA facilities across the country. After years of VA failure to respond, a CNN report last month that at least 40 died in Phoenix waiting for treatment prompted the American Legion and some lawmakers to call for Shinseki's resignation.

Shinseki has declined to ask the Justice Department to investigate, even though he acknowledges the alleged activity would be illegal. The most significant action so far: The White House dispatched a deputy chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to help Shinseki respond to the allegations. (Shinseki told the Senate panel he served with Nabors' father and knows his parents well.) Another indication of the attitude of Shinseki's team: Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the panel's top Republican, disclosed at the hearing that a top Shinseki lieutenant, in a recent conference with other VA officials, declared that that the medical director of the Phoenix office had "done nothing wrong" and that the decision to put her on leave was "political."

"I was not aware of the phone call," Shinseki replied.

Shinseki assured the Senate panel that he was "mad as hell" about the allegations. But Democratic and Republican senators alike observed that his anger was not matched by action.

"It's not 'we think this is happening,' it's 'we know this is happening,'" Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said, asking Shinseki to interpret part of the 2010 VA memo outlining the "gaming" practices.

"I'm going to take your direction here," Shinseki demurred.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., reminded Shinseki that "we have more than allegations at this point. We have evidence, solid evidence, of wrongdoing within the VA system and it is more than an isolated instance of wrongdoing, it's a pattern and practice."

Blumenthal asked Shinseki if he would call in the FBI. Shinseki said he would "make that available" to the inspector general -- "if that's his request."

There's that "if" again, and here's another: If Obama wants to resolve this VA debacle, he'll need a less passive secretary.

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little_r_republican May 20, 2014 11:11 AM

The real culprit is ABC...they released the story and obama just heard about it Friday.

redleg6 May 19, 2014 1:25 PM

The Veterans Administration became a full-blown cabinet department on March 15, 1989 - just beyond 25 years ago. At the time, President George H.W. Bush, a veteran of World War II, said: "There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President of the United States of America."

The VA (the system) is not the Veterans Friend. It is paved with good intentions, but the Veterans Administration will do everything in its power to deny veterans benefits.



little_r_republican May 19, 2014 12:29 PM

We really shoul;d feel sorry for obama. He said he wouldn't rest until this was resolved, just like he said about bengazi and the IRS fake scandle. poor obama, he doesn't get any rest at all! but he does get plenty of mon ey from campaign donations from teh rich and famouse like soros et al.

little_r_republican May 19, 2014 12:25 PM

This is jsut anotehr fake scandle.  The reported $300 spent by dhinseki for office furnature is probably a made up number by the GAO too. Just ask that troll progressive guy...he will tell you!

trawl May 18, 2014 11:54 AM

@ amt_:


We're all just a bunch of leaches.


amt_ May 18, 2014 7:17 AM

Posted by "BestGuess" on May 18, 2014

There is a REASON there are no available appointments, there is a REASON for that backlog of compensation and pension claims.

It's not a funding issue or a staffing issue at the root. It's a poorly regulated and mismanaged Disability and C&P issue in which a larger than life amount of people have figured out how to manipulate and abuse with little effort-- they are absorbing all the VA's services and resources to qualify for "more". Meanwhile, people who legitimately need it--can't get it and we are now seeing the results. The VA has been inundated with a different kind of Veteran in the last ten years. The system is being so abused it can't handle the sheer numbers. 75% are there to see doctors to bolster claims for pensions once they learn how to "work the system"! Nearly everyone gets a rated disability for almost anything!!! All you have to do is say your depressed , or have foot pain,  back pain, headaches, knee pain, bipolar, flat foot, chronic fatigue--"personality disorder" is a currently popular one lately... and it's automatic $$$$ and then more $$$$  (travel pay) to go to appointments so that's what they do. Their full time job is going to doctors to bolster their next claim or increase their rating...just 30% gets them additional $$$ if they have kids or a spouse....and then getting "travel pay" to go to all these appointments...and they don't ever get "better" because they don't want the $$$ to stop! The goal is to get that 100% These are not your Vietnam Vets, WW2 vets, or IRAQI/AFGHAN combat veterans. These are not even Veterans that have served an honorable tour and just need legitimate healthcare.  

I've never seen so many young 20,30 yr old healthy, able bodied people being 100% "disabled" . Then they start learning about other benefits.. housing vouchers, and $$$ for their "caretaker" , even clothing allowances...it's gotten so out of control. Local Veteran Centers teach them how to get their 100%. I know because I talked to one of them and once he learned I was a Vet he was encouraging me to come downtown and show me how to do it.. what to claim etc. he was all of 30yrs old? and was bragging how he's up to 90% now.

THIS is the reason there are no available timely appointments folks.