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May 16, 2014

VA Testimony: Shinseki Is ‘Mad as Hell’ but Refuses to Resign

Caring for veterans is of utmost importance, but the VA is showing the fundamental problem with bureaucracy.

Dogged by a widening scheduling scandal that first came to light in Phoenix but has now reportedly spread to at least six other VA facilities, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki rebuffed calls for his resignation in Congress this week. He boldly informed a Senate panel, “I intend to continue this mission until I have satisfied [my] goal or I’m told by the commander in chief that my time has been served.” He did, however, say that he’s “mad as hell” about the allegations, so we’ll see if that translates into positive action.

> Update: VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel was fired Friday, forced to resign before his coming retirement. His head is the first to roll in this widening scandal.

As one of Obama’s original appointees, Shinseki has overseen the VA since before its 14-day wait-list metric for patients was established three years ago. The metric determined that a patient should be seen no more than two weeks from his or her initial call, but the two-week goal has been ignored by a growing number of VA facilities. In fact, a VA office in Gainsville, Florida, was just found to have a secret wait list full of 200 veterans.

Also troubling are the harmful cost-cutting measures allegedly being implemented on Shinseki’s watch. A whistleblower who formerly worked for a newly created Texas VA center found problems with the new facility’s HVAC system and backup generator that endangered a sterile surgical environment, but more disturbing still was a course of care that called for three positive fecal screenings before allowing for a colonoscopy. Dr. Richard Krugman, the whistleblower, says such delays can cost lives, because, “By the time that you do the colonoscopies on these patients, you went from a stage 1 to a stage 4 [colorectal cancer], which is basically inoperable.” Patients would then perhaps die at home or in a private hospital, off the VA records.

Krugman says the same Texas facility deleted 1,800 orders for service to eliminate a backlog and pass an inspection. Evidently, he blew the whistle on one too many things, however, as he was put on administrative leave before being fired in 2012.

Shinseki’s agency obviously has its hands full with this investigation, so Barack Obama has enlisted Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to assist the probe. Shinseki welcomed Nabors as “a fresh set of eyes.” As its mission, the VA sets 230,000 appointments a day and faces pressure from both ends: Vietnam-era veterans who are now facing the ailments of old age as they reach their sixties and seventies, coupled with the needs of younger veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

As we’ve said before, the problems that plague the VA are surely a harbinger of things to come for the overall health care system under ObamaCare. Its big problem is how to fund care for older and sicker people with few younger and healthier individuals willing to pay a higher premium. But the failures at the VA are practically inherent to any bureaucracy – ineptitude, indifference and self-protection are baked into the cake. It sure would be helpful if a “fresh set of eyes” also looked at the current American health care system.

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