WASHINGTON, May 30, 2014 — Veterans and veteran groups are spitting mad and calling for heads to roll. Fairly or not, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head is one of those on the block.
The true reason for the mistreatment of America’s vets may be emerging. On CNN this evening, Rep. Jeff Mill, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs says the VA has more money in its health care budget than it can spend; some reports say they will carry more than $1.5 billion to the next fiscal year. So why were vets left to languish, and die, instead of being given the timely care they needed?
Miller says the VA failed to send the veterans they could not see to physicians in the private sector. Instead they erased names and moved them around so that it “appeared” that the hospitals were meeting the mandate to see veterans within 14 days of their request for an appointment. These actions affected more than 1,700 veterans and led to at least 23 acknowledged deaths.
Veterans were moved to hidden lists and kept from private care so that VA hospital administrators would earn bonuses. Ultimately, that’s what this was all about: money. For administrators. They sacrificed veterans — their lives, their health, their peace of mind — so that it would look like they were doing their jobs well enough to deserve bonuses. It was an absolute betrayal of trust.
Shinseki, a retired U.S. Army general and former Army Chief of Staff, is a decorated soldier with a distinguished military career that includes two combat tours in Vietnam. During his second tour, he lost a foot to a land-mine explosion. There is little doubt that Secretary Shinseki has served this country well. He is committed to his fellow veterans. He is passionate about serving them, and has done it well on the very public issues of homlessness and the G.J. Bill.
He has put his weight behind solving the problem of homelessness among veterans, and worked on the new GI Bill. He’s led the VA since 2009, inheriting an agency that has been known for years to have serious problems.
At issue isn’t whether he caused the problems at the VA — they long predate him and the Obama Administration — but whether he has done enough to end them.
Has Shinseki been a force for positive change at the VA, or does the VA do what the VA has always done?
In USA Today, Shineski writes that he found the VA Inspector General’s report “reprehensible” and that he’s “not waiting to set things straight.” That report shows that VA hospitals have been manipulating appointments for the veterans included understating patient wait times, a factor considered in VA employee bonuses and raises.
“I immediately directed the Veterans Health Administration … to contact each of the 1,700 veterans in Phoenix waiting for primary care appointments in order to bring them the care they need and deserve,” Shinseki wrote.
The number of VA hospital facilities that are being investigated has grown from one — in Phoenix — to 24, now 46. The investigation will certainly uncover more problems, if not clear abuses.
Most disturbing is that awareness of the neglect of sick and injured veterans,whether they are fresh from the battlefield or battling illness well after they have left the service, has been known from the hospital wards to upper management to Shinseki and the White House.
In 2008, Senator Obama ran against abuses at the VA. he used the example of an 89-year-old veteran who committed suicide after being denied care, to highlight the Bush adminstrations failure to “fix” the VA (see 7:49 on video below). Obama then said:
“How can we let this happen? A Sacred Trust; Support our Veterans. How is this acceptable in the United States of America? The answer is, it’s not. It’s an outrage. And it’s a betrayal, a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.
During today’s press conference, Jay Carney said that the “president is extremely troubled, but when it comes to the overall issue as you know … we are focused on the root of the problem and the full scope of the problem so we can get the veterans the help they need and deserve. The president is saying that we need to get veterans the help and care they need now, not after the investigation.”
So why was this not a priority of the Obama Administration in 2009? 2010? 2011? 2012? 2013? 2014?
The promise from the White House is that veterans will get the help they need now, today, regardless of which list they were on. Carney says they are redoubling their efforts
However, America is still waiting for the veterans who are now on the priority list to step forward with their stories.
However, the president and Americans want to see not only internal VA reports, but also the report from the office of the Inspector General. Was the central problem that VA administrators were given bonus incentives to meet certain standards, but instead of working harder, it was easier to ignore a certain percentage of cases? Or was it that VA funding was not keeping pace with the number of veterans demanding services?
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., blames Washington’s cost-cutting culture for being at the root of the VA scandal. Constant demands to trim excess spending encouraged VA officials to understate their financial needs both internally and to Congress. The result was to put veterans into the cost column and to forget that they were the agency’s clients.
“In an environment where everybody is told, ‘Keep the cost down. Don’t tell me anything costs more.’ — it creates a culture out there for people to cook the books,” Murray said in an interview with Yahoo News. Administrators learn to “hide the facts, because they don’t want to be told by their bosses, ‘Don’t tell me you need more money, because we can’t say that,’” she added.
“Well, in the VA, if they need more money, they need to be able to tell us, because how else are we going to solve these problems,” Murray said. “So we have to change that culture and mindset.”
Murray absolutely charges that the incessant push to reduce VA budgets is the core problem, stating that it is the “culture of austerity that has pervaded Washington since Republicans recaptured the House of Representatives in 2010.” (Yahoo News)
Cutting benefits for Veterans is one of the few issues in Washington that results in bi-partisian consensus. In January, the House passed (201-D, 234-R) a $1.1 trillion spending bill that cuts most veterans’ retirement benefits. Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, calls the measure a “total betrayal” of vets.
“It’s a promise that’s been made with our military folks when they raised their right hand and they sign up,” Rieckhoff told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. He called the budget plan a “whole new level of bipartisan stupidity.”
That bill did re-instate a previous cut to cost-of-living increases announced in December by co-chairs Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and Murray.
Anyone who should have known and did nothing deserves no trust and no position of trust. Let the heads roll.