Secretary fields the heat in hearing

American Legion National Commander Dan Dellinger and Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki testified separately today before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. It was the first congressional hearing since May 5 when Dellinger called for the resignations of Shinseki, Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary of Benefits Allison Hickey due to poor oversight and failed leadership.

While most of the committee members voiced their support for Shinseki, others strongly urged the secretary to take immediate action to remedy problems identified by 18 VA Inspector General reports issued since January 2013.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a longtime supporter of VA and Shinseki, said during her opening statement that “while the department generally offers very high quality health care, I am very frustrated to be here, once again, talking about some deeply disturbing issues and allegations. What we need from you (Shinseki) now is decisive action to restore veterans’ confidence in VA, create a culture of transparency and accountability, and to change these system-wide, years-long problems. The practices of intimidation and of cover-ups must change – starting today.”

On April 23, CNN broadcast a report on a “secret waiting list” in Phoenix that was linked to 40 deaths of veterans receiving care from VA. Since then, other reports of mismanagement have come to light at facilities in Georgia, Texas, Colorado and elsewhere. As part of his testimony, Dellinger included a graphic titled “Epidemic of VA Mismanagement” that highlights reported cases around the United States.

“We supported the creation of the Veterans Administration in 1930, and we fought hard to get the VA elevated to Cabinet-level in 1989,” Dellinger said. “We donate hundreds of thousands of hours each year to VA along with millions of dollars, and have scores of claims representatives. We helped fund a brain research center in Minnesota, and are currently representing three quarters of a million veterans as they file their claims with VA. Make no mistake about it – The American Legion believes in VA.”

Dellinger also noted that “the allegations in Phoenix were not the only reason The American Legion decided to call for leadership change at VA; they were simply the final straw in a long list of systemic leadership failures.” Among the failures Dellinger listed were construction delays and budget overruns, patient deaths due to Legionella, unsanitary care of medical equipment, and VA’s refusal to answer and failure to disclose relevant information to Congress.

When asked by committee members if he was going to resign, Shinseki said he won’t step down unless President Barack Obama asks him to. “Every day I start out with the intent to provide as much care and benefits with people who I went to war with,” Shinseki said. “I’m here to accomplish a mission that they critically deserve and need. We have done a lot to make things better, and we are not done yet.”

Shinseki tried to focus on the “size and scope” of VA health care, noting that VA has “1,700 points of care, including 150 medical centers, 820 community-based outpatient clinics, 300 vet centers, 135 community living centers, 104 domiciliary rehabilitation treatment programs, and 70 mobile vet centers.

“Already, we are beginning to see evidence of people coming forward identifying problems, and I support that,” Shinseki said. “I’m not aware of anything other than a few isolated cases of ‘cooking the books’ and that is why we are doing this audit.”

Shinseki estimated that the audit would take an additional three weeks to complete.

Committee chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., supported the secretary but also noted that “I take these allegations very seriously.” Urging support for the Inspector General report on the failures at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, Sanders said, “We need to get the facts and not rush to judgment.” However he noted, “There is no doubt in my mind that the VA has problems, serious problems in some instances, facing VA health care.”

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., was less sanguine about the prospects of another investigation. “Every day new allegations, ranging from zeroing out wait-times to scheduling people in clinics that do not exist come to light,” he said. After detailing a series of previous Inspector General reports, Burr voiced his opinion that “VA should have been aware that it was facing a major problem with patient scheduling.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., asked Petzel to provide an example of how a VA staff member was disciplined for manipulating the scheduling system. Petzel couldn’t provide an answer, resulting in Isakson telling him that he “needs to find out if VA has an accountability system.”

During a panel discussion involving several veterans service organizations (VSOs), including The American Legion, Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., asked Shinseki to address the “Epidemic of VA Mismanagement” graphic provided at the hearing by The American Legion. Shinseki declined to directly refute anything listed on the graphic, but portrayed some of the occurrences as “adverse events that were self-identified (by VA). This is why I engage the VSOs on a monthly basis. If there are any straight shooters here, it will be them." 

Shinseki noted that some problems were medical mistakes while others had been a blatant manipulation of data. He vowed to hold accountable those identified by the Inspector General reports as responsible for manipulating the data.

Isakson asked each member on the panel whether the problem with VA was one primarily with the health care itself, or access to it. All seven participants expressed confidence in the general quality of health care, but identified access as the obvious weakness.

Watch the hearing here.

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