The Department of Veterans Affairs’ treatment of former service members remains a national disgrace and a betrayal of veterans, who deserve timely medical care.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was supposed to fix this. A Vietnam-era grunt who rose through the ranks to Army chief of staff, Shinseki supposedly understood the sacrifices and acute medical needs of former warriors. Yet, in a widening scandal, he’s been horribly late to identify and correct management abuses that “cooked the books” at the expense of veterans.
The scandal surrounds so-called secret waiting lists used to disguise the fact that veterans weren’t receiving medical aid within a required 14- to 30-day period. Veterans languished on the secret list for months and were transferred onto the official list only when the wait times would fall within the acceptable period. The trick gave the impression that the system operated smoothly; senior executives even received efficiency performance bonuses for this deadly charade.
As many as 40 veterans may have died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix, and similar scheduling schemes may have compromised VA care in more than 10 states. This isn’t an isolated problem, the work of a few bad apples in Arizona; it’s a clear pattern of misbehavior that exists only because VA leadership allows it to exist.
If Shinseki didn’t know of this rampant misbehavior, he should have. Previous reports by the VA Inspector General’s Office spotlighted unacceptable backlogs of disability claims and slow response times to mental health patients that mirror this scandal. Journalists also raised questions about VA scheduling problems months ago. Bipartisan House and Senate oversight committees have clamored for reform based on the earlier reports. Yet the VA seems incapable of doing anything about it.
Shinseki’s testimony before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday demonstrated just how far behind the scandal he has been. He barely acknowledged that problems exist, let alone how they would be corrected. He hid behind an ongoing investigation by the VA inspector general as the reason he could not provide specific information. Meanwhile, veterans wait for the leadership they need to ensure their protection.
Shinseki has improved actual VA health care during his tenure. But he now seems to be walking on thin ice with both hands over his eyes. To restore confidence, he must quickly and aggressively correct clear procedural failings and hold facility directors responsible for abuses. And he doesn’t have to wait for the inspector general’s report to make obvious management and culture reforms.
This country has a moral obligation to provide the best care possible to those who have put their lives and health on the line. If Shinseki doesn’t deliver changes soon, perhaps someone else should take the helm.