Eric Shinseki is out as secretary of Veterans Affairs, but he’s not taking the department’s problems with him.
Sure, a good portion of the blame lays with Shinseki, who has led the department since 2009. But the problems preceded him, and they have their root in structural shortcomings and oversight failures that won’t be fixed by his departure.
The focus of the latest VA scandal has thus far been on assigning, or avoiding, blame. There is plenty to go around, however, and scoring political points will do nothing to get veterans the care they need with the timeliness they deserve. And that is going to take a piece-by-piece overhaul of how the VA does its work, and how it is held accountable.
The latest scandal began a few weeks ago with allegations out of a VA hospital in Phoenix, and the investigation has now spread nationwide. In each case, the misconduct was designed to overstate the number of veterans who were receiving timely care. A recent VA report attributes 23 deaths to delays in care, including 15 in Phoenix.
But the allegations are hardly new. The VA inspector general’s office has produced 18 reports since 2005 detailing scheduling deficiencies and warning the congressional oversight committee not to buy the VA’s numbers.
Those were the same warnings given to the transition team bringing President Barack Obama into office in 2008, and to then-President George W. Bush as far back as 2005.
The Obama administration has done well to improve the quality of care delivered by the VA, following a 2007 report by The Washington Post exposing the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, to the point that patient surveys show a greater satisfaction with VA care than with health care facilities in general.
As a result, a higher percentage of veterans are seeking VA care, at a time when the number of veterans, both from the most recent wars and the Vietnam War, are in need of care.
That has overwhelmed the system, which was inadequately prepared and funded to deal with the consequences of two long wars. The challenges were many — a shortage of doctors and out-of-date computer system, to name two — and no one responded well.
In some cases, employee reviews and bonuses were tied to keeping wait times short, and the hospitals, unable to keep up with the demand, doctored the numbers to ensure positive reviews and regular bonuses.
The reports by the inspector general, dating back years, back this up, and while promises were made that the VA would be held accountable, no one — not VA senior leadership, not Shinseki, not the president, and not the Veterans Affairs Committee, of which Rep. Mike Michaud of Maine is the top House Democrat — followed through with enough force to make things right.
Why is an open question, and one that will have to be answered by all parties involved, including Michaud, who is now the Democratic nominee for governor.
Michaud has proposed making VA leadership more accountable by removing civil service protections for thousands of employees. The House, in an act of pageantry, overwhelmingly passed a weaker bill covering only a relative few.
In any case, accountability won’t accomplish much without the right leadership and steady oversight, both of which failed here.
The next VA secretary will have to move quickly to replace poor managers and change the culture at VA facilities across the country. It is a widespread problem that calls for action on a large scale.
And there is no time to waste. The demands on the VA are not going away. The department must rise to meet them.