Maine’s U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud said late Thursday that he has joined the growing number of Democrats in Congress who are calling for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in response to revelations of problems with waiting lists and deceptive management practices at VA health care facilities.
Michaud had co-chaired a hearing Wednesday night at which top officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs testified on the issue, and his office said during the day Thursday that he was still reserving judgment on Shinseki, pending a final investigative report.
But around 10:40 p.m., Michaud issued a statement saying “the systemic failures in our VA system are inexcusable and must be fixed immediately.”
“It is with a heavy heart that I call on Secretary Shinseki to step down,” Michaud said in the statement. “Democrats and Republicans alike, in tandem with our veteran service organizations and the millions of Americans who have served our nation, all want to get to the bottom of what exactly is broken with the VA system, and what we can do to fix it. Instead, one man has become the focal point. It’s time to move forward.”
Michaud, a Democratic candidate for governor, has faced attacks over the issue from his opponents in the race, independent Eliot Cutler and Republican Gov. Paul LePage.
The reports of misconduct at veterans’ facilities surfaced weeks ago, after whistleblowers accused agency officials in Phoenix of keeping secret waiting lists to hide how long veterans were waiting for medical care.
Since then, other whistleblowers have alleged misconduct at other veterans’ hospitals. No issues have been reported in Maine, according to Michaud and veterans’ groups.
The Office of the Inspector General has widened its probe to VA clinics nationwide, to determine whether staff members purposely omitted the names of veterans who sought treatment, and whether any deaths resulted from delayed care.
An interim report released by the office Wednesday said that 1,700 veterans in Phoenix who were awaiting care were not on the official electronic waiting list. Until a veteran gets on the list, the clock recording the wait time – one factor in employees’ awards and salary increases – does not start.
The Office of the Inspector General looked at incidents involving 266 veterans in Phoenix. It found that 84 percent waited more than two weeks for an appointment, about twice the number reported by VA officials. It also found that veterans, on average, waited 115 days for an appointment – nearly five times the 24 days reported by officials.
The interim report recommends immediate action such as providing appropriate health care to the 1,700 veterans who are not on any waiting list, prioritizing those who are at the greatest medical risk.
In his statement Thursday night, Michaid said, “After the interim … report was released yesterday, I had hoped that the VA would demonstrate its ability to take immediate and timely action on righting these wrongs and to fully comply with our requests for more information. Unfortunately, upon thoughtful deliberation and reflection, I now have even more doubts about the VA’s ability to work with Congress to address this crisis.”
RESERVING JUDGMENT EARLIER IN DAY
Michaud was not available for an interview Thursday because of a busy schedule on the House floor, said his congressional spokesman, Dan Rafter.
When asked during the day why Michaud was confident that Shinseki could implement the inspector general’s interim recommendations, Rafter said Michaud “feels the secretary has no choice.”
Members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a contentious hearing Wednesday night with three VA officials. Michaud was among those who expressed frustration with the VA’s inability to produce information for the committee.
Before the hearing, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who co-chairs the committee with Michaud, seized on the inspector general’s interim report to reverse his position and call for Shinseki’s resignation.
In a written statement, Miller commended Shinseki’s service to his country but called for his resignation for ignoring “repeated and frequent warnings” from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general.
“What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki – in both word and deed – appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department,” said Miller, who said the VA needs a leader who will hold people accountable. “Secretary Shinseki has proven time and again he is not that leader. That’s why it’s time for him to go.”
Last week, President Obama promised to hold people accountable for misdeeds but stood by Shinseki, pending the final results of the investigation. Shinseki has led the department since Obama took office in 2009.
At least eight Democrats who face re-election battles – six in the Senate and two in the House – have called for Shinseki’s resignation, according to The Washington Post.
PROBLEMS REPORTED FOR YEARS
Scheduling problems in the VA are not new. The inspector general’s report says it has issued 18 reports since 2005 that have identified scheduling deficiencies causing long waits and the negative effects on care at facilities across the country.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that in 2010, the department sent a memo to facility managers to combat “gaming strategies” that made it look like veterans were getting appointments within their target times and officials were meeting performance goals so they could get raises.
Michaud, who has served on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee for 12 years and has been a ranking member for the last year, said at a news conference in Portland on May 23 that he has long been concerned with a lack of accountability in the VA. He submitted a bill to address those issues in April.
Michaud’s bill would remove civil service protections for about 80,000 VA officials, making it easier to fire them. His bill would also update performance standards in the department.
The House voted to approve a bill sponsored by Miller that was narrower in scope. Michaud’s bill has not made it to the floor of the Republican-controlled House.
POLITICAL OPPONENTS CHIME IN
The scandal has provided political fodder for Michaud’s opponents in Maine’s gubernatorial race, even though no issues have been reported at the Togus VA Medical Center in Augusta.
Independent Cutler released a statement Thursday accusing the president and members of Congress who oversee the VA of failing to meet their obligations to veterans.
“It increasingly appears that they’ve been asleep on the job,” Cutler said.
Gov. LePage mentioned the scandal in his weekly address, using it to tout his administration’s record on veterans issues.
“Our administration has worked hard to fight for veterans,” LePage said. “We have enacted laws to ensure our veterans are given full credit for their military training and experience when they apply for an occupational license from the state.”
Rafter defended Michaud’s record on veterans’ issues. He said Michaud has sponsored or co-sponsored 506 bills on behalf of veterans, 110 of which were enacted by the House.
In 2008, Michaud played a key role in creating a pilot program in Maine that allows veterans who live far from the clinics in Augusta or Boston to get medical care at non-VA clinics in their communities. The program was launched in 2010 and was scheduled to expire this year, but the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved funding to keep the project going.
Rafter noted that during the 113th Congress, 70 hearings have been held by Michaud’s committee, with more than 40 focused on oversight.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: