The VA Scandal: A Shadow over Memorial Day

memorial_day_2012_04As many thoughtful Americans will spend some part of today remembering the enormous sacrifices made by our veterans, this particular Memorial Day can hardly remain removed from the series of highly disturbing revelations surrounding the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) scandal. The sad treatment of America’s servicemen and women has only been exacerbated by their Commander-in-Chief’s cold response, with dishonest claims that the President only learned about VA problems in the news and that he needs more time to “review” the situation. 

That was his assessment following his meeting with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki last Wednesday. And while the president expressed faith in Shinseki’s ability to investigate and reform the VA, that faith stood in stark contrast to the American Legion’s viewpoint. The nation’s largest veteran’s group called for the Shinseki’s resignation along with those of his top two administrators. “His patriotism and sacrifice for this nation are above reproach,” said American Legion national commander Daniel Dellinger. “However, his record as head of the Department of Veterans Affairs tells a different story. It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership.”

President Obama isn’t there yet. “Well, we have to find out first of all what exactly happened,” Obama said Wednesday in response to a question asking why as many as 40 veterans could have died awaiting treatment at the VA in Phoenix. He continued:

And I don’t want to get ahead of the IG report or the other investigations that are being done. And I think it is important to recognize that the wait times generally — what the IG indicated so far, at least, is the wait times were folks who may have had chronic conditions, were seeking their next appointment, but may have already received service. It was not necessarily a situation where they were calling for emergency services. And the IG indicated that he did not see a link between the wait and them actually dying. That does not excuse the fact that the wait times in general are too long in some facilities. And so what we have to do is find out what exactly happened.

Really? Shortly after the 2008 election, VA officials warned the Obama-Biden transition team about VA failures regarding waiting times and appointment scheduling. “This is not only a data integrity issue in which [Veterans health Administration] reports unreliable performance data; it affects quality of care by delaying — and potentially denying — deserving veterans timely care,” the officials wrote. In 2010, an internal VA memo revealed that officials again warned of “inappropriate scheduling practices” to cover up excessive waiting times for veterans seeking appointments. 

Even more telling, the VA has already admitted that the deaths of 23 veterans were linked to delays in endoscopy screenings looking for possible gastrointestinal cancer in 76 patients. Twenty-seven different VA hospitals were involved, the worst offender being William Jennings Bryan Dorn veterans hospital in Columbia, S.C. Delays in screenings for 20 patients resulted in six deaths.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee characterized those deaths as “heartbreaking,” but noted that no one had been held accountable, despite the fact that “most” of the deaths occurred in 2010 and 2011. Miller had even more ominous news to deliver last Thursday. “We’ve received some information and some tips that will make what has already come look like kindergarten stuff,” he told CNN. 

If such realities truly matter to Obama, his prepared remarks following his meeting with Shinseki were hardly inspiring, especially regarding accountability. “First, anybody found to have manipulated or falsified records at VA facilities has to be held accountable,” he warned. “The inspector general at the VA has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA and other facilities, and some individuals have already been put on administrative leave.”

Administrative leave hardly cuts it, and members of the House of Representatives were more than up to the task of addressing that reality. The “2014 VA Management Accountability Act” that would give VA Secretary “greater authority” to dismiss the poor performers in the Senior Executive Service “in the same manner a member of Congress can remove a member of their staff,” passed that chamber by a 390-33, veto-proof majority. “President Obama is known for talking about accountability without ever holding anyone accountable,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said before the vote.

On Thursday, the Democratically-controlled Senate blocked the bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid noted it was “not unreasonable,” but said he wants to wait for Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to work on his own version. Sanders objected to the House legislation, insisting more time was needed to study some of the bill’s provisions. He promised to look at this bill and other pieces of legislation beginning some time in June.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) castigated such political tone-deafness. “As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, I am disappointed, and frankly shocked that Senate Democratic leaders chose to block legislation that would hold VA managers accountable,” he said in a statement. “As we head home to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedom, it’s fair to ask why Senate Democrats won’t stand up for more accountability?”

Perhaps they’re taking their cues from the president. It was Obama who spoke in banal generalities, noting that veterans “are the best that our country has to offer,” and while people “are angry and want swift reckoning…we have to let the investigators do their job and get to the bottom of what happened.” Obama also attempted to distance himself, Shinseki and the rest of his administration from the scandal, insisting VA malfeasance “has been a problem for decades, and it’s been compounded by more than a decade of war. That’s why when I came into office, I said we would systematically work to fix these problems, and we have been working really hard to address them.” 

How hard? Last Monday White House Press Secretary Jay Carney claimed the White House learned about the fiasco in Phoenix from CNN reports disseminated in April.

As for the allegations regarding the deaths of 40 veterans at that facility, the acting VA inspector general claims that 17 of them cannot be attributed to excessive wait times. “We didn’t conclude, so far, that the delay caused the death,” said Richard Griffin at a Senate hearing last Thursday. “It’s one thing to be on a waiting list, it’s another for that to be the cause of death.” 

Perhaps, but such a statement is disingenuous. Cause of death is invariably attributable to a medical condition. Thus it would seem that determining how badly a particular medical condition was exacerbated—to the point of death—by a lack of timely care is a highly subjective exercise. Griffin cautioned that the investigation remains large in scope. “Part of this review could lead to criminal charges being brought,” he warned.

The main whistleblower at the Phoenix VA was Dr. Sam Foote, who wrote a piece in the New York Times explaining why he became one. “I knew about patients who were dying while waiting for appointments on the V.A.’s secret schedules, and I couldn’t stay silent,” he writes, further noting he got no response to two letters he wrote to the VA inspector general. And while he has “faith” the current investigative team is doing a good job in Phoenix, he has “very little” confidence in the internal V.A. inspection conducted by Shinseki through the Veterans Integrated Service Network. “The difference is between trained investigators from the Department of Justice whose job it is to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse — lying to them can trigger criminal penalties — and V.I.S.N. office workers who ask a few questions of clinic staff members who may be afraid to speak the truth out of fear of retribution,” he explains.

He offers an alternative solution:

have Debra A. Draper, the director of the Health Care Government Accountability Office, conduct an anonymous electronic survey of primary care providers, nurses and clerks at every V.A. hospital and clinic across the nation to find out what they think the real new and returning patient waiting times are. Then her team should give the hospital administrators a one-week amnesty period to report their own version of the waiting times. If the numbers match, then you have reliable data. If they don’t, then send the inspector general out to audit them. If the hospital administrators have fudged their data, fire them and prosecute them to the maximum extent under the law.

Unfortunately, he suspects that idea will go nowhere. “Any scandal that befalls the V.A. necessarily lands on the party that is in the White House,” he explains. “As this is an election year, we can expect that there will be significant pushback to delay and limit the discovery of negative information — which is why I expect my suggestions to be vehemently opposed by the White House and the V.A.’s upper management.”

Add Senate Democrats to the list. Despite calls for Shinseki’s ouster from Republicans and the American Legion, not a single Democratic Senator jumped on the bandwagon. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Kay Hagan (D-NC), both of whom are in tight reelection races, demanded that “those responsible” be “held accountable,” but such generalities are unlikely to mollify veterans and their supporters.

In the meantime, the hits keep on coming. At Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Fl. an audit team discovered a list of veterans awaiting followup appointments being kept on paper instead of in the computer system. Three members of the supervisory staff have been put on paid leave pending the investigation’s outcome. At the Huntington VA Medical Center in Charleston, W.Va., a doctor employed from 2008-2010 claimed she was also told to delay appointments. Dr. Margaret Moxness claimed this was done even as she told supervisors they needed immediate care. She alleges two patients committed suicide in the interim. “They don’t really experience what the doctors and nurses are experiencing, which is the suffering and the pain and the death,” she said. 

That brings the list of those who have stepped forward to eleven—not counting the 310 submissions as of May 19 to the encrypted website run by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who are in the process of soliciting VA “horror stories” from the public, veterans, and VA employees who comprise “less than 10 percent” of those submissions. Yet even 5 percent means another 15 or 16 VA employees may have more insight to offer on the deception and fraud being perpetrated by the VA.

On Saturday, the administration did offer one common sense solution to the backlog of appointments, announcing that it will allow veterans to receive more care at outsized facilities. “VA has redoubled efforts to provide quality care to veterans and has taken steps at national and local levels to ensure timely access to care,” the department said Saturday in a statement.

This then is the current state of affairs on Memorial Day. And while ongoing investigations are warranted, the notion that the president and/or Secretary Shinseki can’t begin a massive shakeup of this agency beginning right now is utterly absurd. Equally absurd is the president’s “I only learned about this scandal when the public did” excuse. It is the same one he used following revelations about the Fast and Furious gunrunning scandal, and the IRS’s unwarranted scrutiny of tax-exempt conservative groups, and it grows as stale as it does incredulous.

It is more than a little ironic that the VA’s failure to see veterans in a timely manner is exactly the wait-and-see attitude embraced by the president and the VA Secretary. Perhaps both men should be asked how many more veterans will experience “the suffering and the pain and the death” such bureaucratic torpor produces in the interim. It is a question that hangs over this Memorial Day like a shroud.

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  • jdkchem

    Bernie Sanders blocked the the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014 (H.R. 4031) which passed overwhelmingly in the house. Then he tossed out a video on youtube how his bill putting more funding into the VA was blocked by Republicans and claims he’s not playing politics. As always with these scubags it’s more money & no accountability.

  • karmw1

    Business as usual.

  • Rick Allen Carfagna

    Memorial Day RANT: So far, more than 100 of our veterans,
    our heroes…national treasures…have died due to this systemic horror show called
    the “chairman ma☭-bama
    regime”

    Right now, there are 2 doctor’s per every 3 inmate at
    Guantanamo Bay detention camp. When a terrorist at Gitmo complains of a
    hangnail, they are seen immediately and receive the best care anywhere. 1
    doctor per 1.5 terrorist inmates.

    Compare that to the situation
    in the VA.

    Currently there are
    21.2 million military veterans living in the United States and 14,000 doctors
    to treat them. That’s 1 doctor per 1514 potential patients and our veterans are
    being put on secret waiting lists and dying there to pad the numbers so this
    regime can claim they’ve made things better.

    Under this “chairman
    ma☭-bama
    regime”, terrorists are receiving better and
    faster medical treatment than our own veterans.

    On this day (as it
    should be every day) as we salute our veterans, heroes and national
    treasures………be mindful of the families of those represented who must endure the
    psychological warfare imposed on a nation through the victimization of ANYTHING
    America.

    The most wonderful thing enemy tyrant ☭-bama
    could possibly do FOR America would be to stay away from the gravesides of
    American Patriots. Who needs an insincere theatrical performance from an
    dishonest enemy puppet? That America hating enemy has no business being on
    American soil, let alone stand on the soil the covers the persons who defended
    her from people less dangerous than him.

    • spyeatte

      I wonder what would happen if a few veterans with serious conditions should ask to be transferred to Gitmo so as to get treatment.

  • Texas Patriot

    What many thoughtful Americans will be doing today is reflecting on the corruption, incompetence, and disloyalty of a government that would send American soldiers into harm’s way as “global policemen” without a declaration of war and without adequate rules of engagement to secure a rapid, decisive, and complete victory over our enemies, and it’s a mistake we’ve been making since the Korean War. As a result, we’ve now sent three generations of American soldiers to sacrifice their lives on foreign battlefields under circumstances where the national security of the United States was not directly at risk, and it represents the greatest crime against the American people in the entire history of the United States of America.

  • Gee

    I have a real solution that will save lots of money and really improve Veterans medical care.

    Require that all members of Congress and the Executive branch get 100% of the medical care and treatment at VA facilities and that they have the exact wait times as the veterans

  • nimbii

    After Obamacare kicks in, will there be no private system to send Vets to?

    ALSO:

    If the Senate passes the VA bill permitting ineffective federal employees to be fired, then the American people will see how well it works and they’ll want it across the board at all agencies.

    If that’s not a Dem nightmare, what is?

  • Capt Bob

    Wow all this fuss about the VA Hospitals but nobody is saying a thing about the 62,000 Homeless Veterans hungry on the streets of the United States. What happen to: “Standing up for those that Stood up for us.

  • WeroInNM

    Veterans and members of our Armed Forces under attack!
    http://weroinnm.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/veterans-and-members-of-ou
    “Food For Thought”
    God Bless Our Troops & Their Families-God Bless America!
    Semper Fi!
    Jake

  • TheOrdinaryMan

    Well, Nancy Pelosi and Rachel Maddow have, predictably, blamed George W. Bush for the situation at the VA. And Pelosi has suggested that-get ready-Obamacare is the solution! Some will say that the VA disaster is the result of Bush getting us into wars that, in their opinion, we had no business being in; others will say the roots of this scandal go back decades. Yes, Bush did get us into a war or two, and the beginnings of the VA disaster DO go back decades. But neither of these observations gets us one iota closer to solving the problem. Obama was told in 2008, nearly SIX years ago, of the insufferably long wait times at the VA. What has he done in the interim? N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Absolutely nothing. If he wanted to show good faith, he would have fired Gen. Shinseki, at least. But instead, we’re treated to the same shopworn generalities about finding out “exactly what happened.” And Obama will try to find some way to sidestep the 2014 VA Accountability Act. The depth of the scandal is revealed when we are told that the VA spends more on draperies and furniture than on patient care. But this recently passed legislation promises to get the VA on the road to better days. We’ll see.

  • Boots

    The idea is to make all VA employees (or even all federal employees) mandated reporters who can be held criminally liable for not reporting illegal activity they know about. It might change the corporate culture if they can get jail time and/or fines for ignoring corruption.

  • kiorikid

    We need to see the “Racial Distribution” of the forty(40) dead
    as well as the 1,300-2,000 on any “Secret List(s) at Phoenix VAMC.
    How many African-Americans died?
    How many Hispanics died?
    How many of the dead were White?
    What does it mean if they are all White?

  • sonoftompaine

    Just as socialist/communist ideologues can’t see islamic supremacist ideologues,
    Obamacare communists can’t identify or recognize veterans administration communists. They are all hopelessly blinded by their dictatorial madness.

  • http://www.dclibertarians2014.blogspot.com/ BruceMajors4DC

    “The VA is socialized medicine that works. The VA is an example of a single-payer system that provides better care for more people at far less cost.” –Paul Krugman, 2011

  • larry kelley

    What AMAZES me is how anyone continues to try to defend the VA & point out its good parts while its hideous parts are being investigated for criminal fraud, murder & manslaughter charges. Such people clearly have been brainwashed that there can still be some good things to say when VA executives MURDERED veterans in exchange for bonuses. There is never anything good to say about murderers — or any past good things they may have done. Or about those who held their tongues while these HIGH CRIMES were perpetrated. Some of these whistleblowers are selfish cowards who want us to believe they were only sheeple too afraid to dial 911. Failing to report a high crime is complicity & aiding & abetting. See, 18 US Code § 3 & 4.

  • Ray – Jesus is the Son of God.

    2 Timothy 3:

    This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their ownselves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. But they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men, as theirs also was….

    Pastor Kirk DiVietro and I have created a website that explains from
    God’s Word what is going on and where it’s all leading to..
    Our website is called: itshallcometopass.org

    Respectfully, Ray

  • USARetired

    America never seems to wake up to the fact that Government is always the very most inefficient mode in America! The U.S. Government cannot brake even while doing nothing in a sealed paper bag! They have a 100 % record of failure!