We need more action, less talk from Obama administration on veterans health

OPINION - The incredible neglect, abuse and deaths of patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals, along with the stonewalling of information by top VA officials, has angered even some congressional Democrats...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The incredible neglect, abuse and deaths of patients in Veterans Affairs hospitals, along with the stonewalling of information by top VA officials, has angered even some congressional Democrats who have up to now shown little appetite for challenging the president’s managerial competency.

When a strong Obama supporter like Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., blasts the VA leadership as “liars,” demands the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and joins Republicans in calling for a full-blown investigation, the president must realize how serious this matter has become.

Outrage from our military community that has sacrificed so much for our country, along with growing mainstream media coverage and the outcry from countless Americans, appears to have moved President Obama to stop talking and to start using his executive powers instead to make some changes.

After all, it has been six years.

And those changes begin with accepting the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

In announcing Mr. Shinseki’s departure, the president expressed his “considerable regret,” reiterating, “He is a very good man.” It was very clear this was a step the president did not want to take, but the calls for Shinseki’s resignation or firing had grown from being a distraction to inescapable once the Inspector General’s Report was released. Even the president had to admit the problems within the VA system had become widespread, noting in his public statement, “[w]hat they found is that misconduct has not been limited to a few facilities.”

While there is no panacea for anyone in the removal of Shinseki or any of the other officials who are responsible for the mess within the VA Hospital system (something this president was loath to do), there is something to be said for accountability — to our vets and to the American people. Lest we forget, then Senator Barack Obama served on the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and condemned the Bush administration for the “deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals.”

In November, 2007, Senator Obama rightly noted, “[a]fter seven years of an Administration that has stretched our military to the breaking point, ignored deplorable conditions at some VA hospitals, and neglected the planning and preparation necessary to care for our returning heroes, America’s veterans deserve a President who will fight for them not just when it’s easy or convenient but every hour of every day for the next four years.”

So claims by President Obama, or at least by his spokesman, some six years later that he is “mad as hell” made for a good sound bite, but it was clear to everyone being mad wasn’t the same as being “a president who will fight for [veterans] not just when it’s easy or convenient but every hour of every day for the next four years.”

Current revelations concerning the Phoenix facility show that veterans faced long delays in treatment while officials falsified wait periods to cover up what may have been the deaths of as many as 40 veterans waiting for care. Specifically, the IG Report found that “at least 1,700 veterans waiting for health care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs medical facility were not included on the facility’s wait list, and patients there waited an average of 115 days for their first appointments.” The report found the problems are “systemic” and not limited to Phoenix.

All of this is even more maddening when one considers that in 2008, repeated audits revealed that the VA was misreporting wait times for medical treatment. One audit found delays nearly 10 times worse than the federal department was officially acknowledging.

The situation was so bad that the Inspector General said it stopped trying to police the issue until the VA could prove its information was accurate — raising a red flag for the Obama presidential transition team, according to documents obtained under a Freedom of Information request by The Washington Times.

The documents specifically revealed that mismanagement and neglect occurred back to at least the middle of the Bush administration and remained unresolved well into the current administration despite Obama’s pledge to do otherwise.

According to the documents, the VA inspector told the Obama team of three audits dating back to 2005 that revealed terrible problems with patient wait times and scheduling to see doctors. One of those audits, the Times reports, showed an instance in which the VA claimed 2,900 veterans waited more than a month for medical appointments. However, the auditors found that about 28,000 vets was the more accurate number of patients affected.

Keep in mind, too, that wait time reporting was a big factor used to dole out bonuses to VA executives.

But wait — there’s more.

The Inspector General at the time offered the Bush administration a number of recommendations to try to help the department establish accurate wait times and to take steps to ensure secret “informal waiting lists” weren’t being used. According to the documents obtained by the Times, the VA rejected both recommendations in May 2008. Sadly, to this day, President Obama’s top brass at the VA refuse to say whether any of those reforms were implemented. Incredible.

Moreover, VA officials still haven’t responded to questions about why it has taken the department so long to enact an “action plan” that Shinseki recently said would provide officials with more accurate data on wait times. Maybe now we will begin to get some answers.

It was clear that Shinseki and others could no longer manage nor lead the VA.

But more important than that, it was also clear the president would have to take some action in this crisis and begin to hold accountable a government that had, for far too long, become complacent about, and even disinterested in, the long-term health of our American vets.