Change has been desperately needed at the Department of Veterans Affairs for years, and it appears unlikely that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki is up to the task.
What is clear is that the VA is being mismanaged. The latest scandal involves some VA facilities reportedly falsifying data to hide lengthy wait times for veterans to see doctors. A long-standing issue is the chronic backlog in disability claims. That problem has improved somewhat, but the backlog remains far too high.
In Western New York, the improper reuse of insulin pens exposed veterans to the possibility of infection. Also last year, thousands of patient files at VA hospitals in Buffalo and Batavia were misplaced or damaged.
Administrators have not been held accountable for the lapses in care for the nation’s veterans. That has to change, and it has to involve more than the mostly symbolic resignation of Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health care, who was going to retire this year anyway.
Last year, the department established a goal for new patients seeking primary care to be seen within 14 days of calling for an appointment, with the date of that request logged into a computer file so that it could be tracked.
The move proved disastrous. Rather than comply with the deadline, VA hospitals in Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and elsewhere apparently used secret waiting lists and other mechanisms to hide the true length of time it took for veterans to see doctors. Some delays may have extended for months.
Reports from whistle-blowers and the House Committee on Veterans Affairs have said that as many as 40 veterans might have died while waiting for appointments, although an examination by the Inspector General’s Office of 17 deaths didn’t find any evidence they were caused by excessive wait times. However, the acting inspector general indicated that improper scheduling practices could lead to criminal charges.
Shinseki would do well to explain in full what occurred at the department’s Phoenix medical center, where reports of secret waiting lists first emerged. Instead, he ducks the need to answer questions by pointing to the inspector general’s ongoing investigation.
Shinseki has said he is “personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequences that a veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care.” That’s not enough.
Some members of Congress and the American Legion have called for Shinseki to resign, and for good reason – he either does not understand how to manage such a large system or has not installed the right management team.
Either way, the retired four-star general and Army chief of staff is in over his head. The problems have gone on for too long, and our veterans deserve better.