Political Vultures Circling Around Eric Shinseki, Deservedly So
The calls for Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to resign in the wake of the growing scandals regarding delays in care, secret waiting lists, and cover-ups at VA hospitals throughout the country are just continuing to grow:
Calls for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki reached a fever pitch on Wednesday after the release of an explosive watchdog report that found “systemic” problems at VA facilities around the country.
Senate Democrats, who had stood unified behind Shinseki last week, began to abandon him in droves after the release of the report, with Sens. Mark Udall (Colo.), John Walsh (Mont.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) all calling for his ouster.
“The Inspector General’s report confirms the worst of the allegations against the VA and its failure to deliver timely care to veterans. It is time for President Obama to remove Secretary Shinseki from office,” Walsh, the Senate’s lone Iraq War veteran, said in a statement.
Adding to Shinseki’s woes, two Republicans with strong ties to the military — Sen. John McCain and Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) — said it was time for new leadership at the VA.
“I haven’t said this before, but I think it’s time for Gen. Shinseki to move on,” McCain said on CNN.
The interim report from the VA’s inspector general (IG) office confirmed reports that a VA clinic in Phoenix kept a secret waiting list to hide delays in treatment.
While the clinic had claimed veterans waited an average of 24 days for care, the IG said the actual waiting time was around 115 days — a finding Shinseki called “reprehensible.”
“I have reviewed the interim report, and the findings are reprehensible to me, to this Department, and to veterans,” Shinseki said in a statement.
The IG report recommended that Shinseki ”initiate a nationwide review of veterans on wait lists to ensure that veterans are seen in an appropriate time, given their clinical condition.”
Shinseki scrambled to contain the damage, ordering the VA to “immediately triage each of the 1,700 veterans identified” by the inspector general to bring them “timely care.” He also said he has placed the leadership of the clinic on administrative leave.
Those actions did little to quiet the storm.
Hagan, who is facing a tough reelection race this year, said the “serious misconduct” revealed by the IG must be addressed by a change in leadership.
“Secretary Shinseki has served our country honorably over many decades, but in the interest of regaining the trust of our veterans, and implementing real and lasting reforms, I believe it is time for him to step aside,” Hagan said.
Democrats dealing with the VA scandal on the campaign trail also distanced themselves from Shinseki, as Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) became the fourth Democratic Senate candidate to call for a shake-up.
The White House gave no clues about whether Shinseki’s job might be at risk, though press secretary Jay Carney said President Obama has been briefed on the IG report and “found the findings extremely troubling.”
“As the president said last week, the VA must not wait for current investigations of VA operations to conclude before taking steps to improve care,” Carney said. ”It should take immediate steps to reach out to veterans who are currently waiting to schedule appointments and make sure that they are getting better access to care now.”
Late yesterday, two more Democratic Senators, Minnesota’s Al Franken and New Hampshire’s Jeanne Shaheen joined the calls for Shinseki to step aside in the the wake of the latest reports set forth in the preliminary Inspector Generals report. That report, which was mostly limited to the problems at the VA hospital, is just the latest in a series of news that has come out in the last week which indicate that the problems in the Phoenix VA Hospital were far from isolated and that there are serious institutional problems in the VA’s health system that have been swept under the rug, many of which have at least delayed care for hundreds if not thousands of veterans and some of which may have resulted in early deaths due to lack of adequate care.
In the end, of course, the problems at the Department go far deeper than Eric Shinseki. In many cases, they predate him and to a large degree they involve the actions or failures to act of people under him over which he does not have direct supervisory control. Getting rid of the Secretary of Veterans Affairs isn’t going to solve the problems at the VA unless it is also accompanied by the removal of the people further down the chain responsible for these decisions. There also needs to be examination of the bizarre incentive structure that led to the creation of secret waiting lists that made it appears as though hospitals were doing a better job of addressing veteran’s health needs than they actually were. And, a reassessment of the idea that the VA should be the source of all the health care that veterans receive. For example. analysts on both sides of the political aisle have suggested since this scandal first started breaking that the agency ought to be concentrating hospital resources on things like combat injuries and other areas where the agency specializes while referring most primary care out to private sector fee-for-service doctors. This may mean transforming at least part of the VA health benefit system into something resembling Medicare, allowing vets to see private physicians without having to rely on insurance from some other source. In other words, what’s needed is a transformation of the VA from the bottom up, not just the removal of the guy at the top.
All that being said, two things are becoming obvious. First of all, Shinseki has lost the confidence of both Congress and of the veterans his agency is supposed to be working for. Second, notwithstanding whatever his achievements may have been in the military, it seems clear that Shinseki is not up the task of running and reforming a bureaucracy that has been a mess for decades. Finally, if there is going to be change at the VA it seems clear that it cannot credibly executed by the same leadership team that has presided over its worst scandal in recent memories. Ideally, the President should find someone with broad support in both parties to replace Shineski, someone who would have the credibility to come into the VA and clean house. I’m not sure who that person might be at this point, but it’s exceedingly clear that the Obama Administration will not be able to put this scandal behind it unless changes are made at the top.