By Rick Dandes
The Daily Item
DIMOCK — An investigation revealing excessive waiting times for appointments at Veterans Administration hospitals is only the tip of the iceberg, says a former Valley congressman and Navy Reservist who knows ousted Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Chris Carney, a Democrat from Dimock who once represented the state’s 10th Congressional District, said further probes will uncover endemic problems within the Veterans Health Administration nationwide.
Shinseki resigned Friday at the height of political clamor calling for his departure.
“As an American, as a veteran, and as the father of a currently-serving Marine,” Carney said Friday, “I am appalled that the VHA system has broken the faith with those that have served us so faithfully and so well.”
The incompetence, lack of integrity and possible criminality of those running individual hospitals needs to be fully exposed and punished, Carney said.
“I am not convinced that Shinseki’s resignation is the answer,” he said, “nor am I sure that retaining him would have made a difference.”
As a commander in the Navy Reserve, former counterterrorism and intelligence analyst and Defense Intelligence Agency liaison officer, Carney has a unique perspective on military affairs and their consequences.
Problems within Veterans Health Administration pre-date President Barack Obama and Shinseki, Carney said.
“They pre-dated George Bush and the five Veterans Affairs secretaries that served under him, and they reflect such deep systemic flaws that a wholesale reorganizing of the VHA is called for.”
Carney has worked professionally and personally with Shinseki, and is convinced that the general is a man of honor and integrity.
“Unfortunately, he led an organization where bureaucratic correctness became more important than providing care for our veterans. A fundamental reassessment of the (Veterans Health Administration) must occur and there must be absolute accountability from everyone that works in that system.”
The report last week confirming that 1,700 veterans were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” at a Phoenix hospital was hardly the first independent review that documented long wait times for some patients seeking health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs and inaccurate records that understated the depth of the problem.
Eleven years ago, a task force established by President George W. Bush determined that at least 236,000 veterans were waiting six months or more for a first appointment or an initial follow-up. The task force warned that more veterans were expected to enter the system and that the delays threatened the quality of care the VA provided.
Two years ago, a former hospital administrator told senators during an oversight hearing that VA hospitals were “gaming the system” and manipulating records to make it appear that wait time standards, the criteria for awarding manager and executive bonuses, were being met.
Since 2005, the department’s inspector general has issued 19 reports on how long veterans have to wait before getting appointments and treatment at VA medical facilities, concluding that for many, sufficient controls don’t exist to ensure that those needing care get it.
For example, in October 2007, the VA inspector general told the Senate Committee on Aging that “schedulers at some facilities were interpreting the guidance from their managers to reduce waiting times as instruction to never put patients on the electronic waiting list. This seems to have resulted in some ‘gaming’ of the scheduling process.”
That’s virtually identical to language in a 2010 VA memorandum, and again in the latest inspector general’s report this week that led dozens of members of Congress to call for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. He abided by those wishes Friday, telling Obama that he had become a distraction as the administration tried to address the VA’s troubles.
The series of reports over the years also raises questions about whether Congress should have done more to solve the problems that have so grabbed the nation’s attention in recent weeks.
“Anyone in Congress who thinks they’ve done enough for the VA is simply deluding themselves,” Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said in response to Shinseki’s resignation. “Year after year, when members of Congress have had the opportunity to provide legitimate funding increases for the VA, they’ve done just enough to skirt by.”
Pointing to the Bush task force report from 2003, Joseph Violante, legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, said the problem of access to health care has been known for a decade.
“In our mind, a lot of the problem that is taking place on the health care side is due to a lack of sufficient funding, and that’s Congress’s jurisdiction. We think they’ve fallen short over the years,” Violante said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said money is not the problem at the VA. He notes that the president has traveled the country touting the spending increases that have occurred in VA’s budget during his presidency.
Spending for VA medical care has nearly doubled in less than a decade, from $28.8 billion in 2006 to $56 billion last year.
“They can’t even spend the money that we appropriated to them. If money could have solved this problem, it would have been solved a long time ago,” Miller said. “It is manipulation and mismanagement that has created the crisis that exists today.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.