The hits just keep coming for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. For weeks, stories of the deplorable policies and procedures in place at VA Medical Centers across the country have continued to surface and have stirred outrage among service members, veterans, and Americans at large. As these accounts continue to emerge, an increasing number of Americans are calling for justice, but justice doesn't seem to be forthcoming.
Earlier this month, more accounts of "secret wait lists" emerged in Wyoming and Florida, in addition to the one originally reported in Phoenix, Arizona. The secret wait list in Arizona allegedly resulted in at least 40 veteran deaths while employees pocketed millions in bonuses and spent hundreds of thousands on gardeners and interior designers.
In Wyoming, employees were actually trained on how to falsify records in order to make it appear that the medical center was in compliance with the 14-day limit on wait times -- something that David Newman, a telehealth coordinator at the center, called "gaming the system" in an internal email.To add insult to injury, reports indicate that the VA leadership knew of the practice as far back as December 2013. However, the internal email that emerged on May 9 was from June 2013, suggesting that the practice has gone on for
quite some time. An internal investigation has opened and employees have been placed on paid leave.
This past week, it was revealed that there was also a secret wait list at the VA center in Gainesville, Florida as well with more than 200 names on it. Reports say three employees have been placed on paid leave pending an internal review. The union that represents the employees in question says that there was no list, but U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) isn't buying it.
Speaking to a reporter with the Ocala Star Banner, Rubio said he wants to see everything the VA has regarding the Gainesville VA, as well as other Florida and Mississippi-based VA medical centers. The Miami VA hospital had previously been investigated by the Inspector General and widespread problems were found.
This week, claims surfaced in New Mexico as well, though it's reported that any records of wrong-doing were destroyed, most likely as a cover up. In West Virginia, the situation is even more serious, with a whistle-blower alleging that veterans committed suicide while stuck on this secret wait list for 10 months or more and that superiors ignored her when she tried to address the problem.
Issues of delayed care have been found at Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, and Illinois VA medical centers as well, some resulting in deaths that could have easily been prevented, and all in the name of money -- either by cutting costs or retaining bonuses.
An analysis of the organization found 167 cases of "delay in treatment" have been settled since 2001 with a payout of more than $36 million, which just adds fuel to an already raging inferno of public indignation.
On Friday, May 16, Shinseki quickly accepted the resignation of the undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, just a day after the two testified before Congress on the issues of wait times and cover ups.
During a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on April 30, Pretzel told committee members:
"To date, we found no evidence of a secret list and we have found no patients who have died because they’ve been on a wait list."
"If the allegations are true, they're absolutely unacceptable," he added.
Shinseki's office issued a statement about Petzel's departure, saying:
"Today, I accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, Under Secretary for Health in the Department of Veterans Affairs. "As we know from the Veteran community, most Veterans are satisfied with the quality of their VA health care, but we must do more to improve timely access to that care. "I am committed to strengthening Veterans’ trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system. "I thank Dr. Petzel for his four decades of service to Veterans.”
But many in Washington and across the country saw this for what it really was: a knee-jerk attempt to appease veterans and the public at large by symbolically throwing someone in leadership under the proverbial bus. The truth is that Petzel was already slated to retire later this year. So the hastening of his departure from the department is nothing more than damage control, according to critics.
"Characterizing this as a 'resignation' just doesn't pass the smell test," said U.S. Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and one of the most vocal critics of the VA's current leadership.
"We don't need the VA to find a scapegoat. We need an actual plan to restore a culture of accountability throughout the VA," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Policy Chief Tom Tarantino.
American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger called the move "not a corrective action but a continuation of business as usual," adding his organization is calling for the resignation of Shinseki and Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits, as well.
"VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability," Dellinger addedAnd accountability seems to be a huge problem, not just within the VA, but within the administration as a whole. It would seem that there is much talk about accountability and being accountable when things go sideways. Yet when the American public finds out about a problem, there never seems to be much change.
Testifying before the Senate on Thursday, May 15, Shinseki said he was "mad as hell" about reports of critically long wait times that resulted in a number of deaths, and their cover up at VA hospitals, but he doesn’t plan to resign. So where is the accountability? Is the public to believe that accountability means simply having to answer some tough questions from Congress and suffering through being the joke of some Facebook memes? That's likely not what victims' families have in mind when they think of accountability.
Accountability would be the prosecution of those responsible. However, Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Department of Justice has no intention of getting involved in the problem at this time.
"This is something on our radar screen at this point, but there is an investigation being done by the inspector general, and we'll see what happens as a result of that inquiry and other information that comes to light in some form or fashion," Holder said.
In other words, Holder is going to wait to see how the issue plays out in the court of public opinion before deciding whether or not to act as the nation's leading law enforcement officer.
With each new revelation about wrong doing at another VA clinic comes the response that those involved have been placed on paid leave pending an internal investigation. But what the VA is really telling the public, in affable political speak, is that the people responsible for violations in VA policy -- which have, in some cases, resulted in deaths -- are still receiving their taxpayer-funded salaries while on an impromptu vacation as the agency polices itself.
This seems to be a pervasive problem, not one that just affects the VA. Throughout the entire Obama administration, whenever some new transgression comes to light, the response is the same. Within the "most transparent administration ever" lie some of the biggest cover ups, many that have never been addressed to the satisfaction of the American people, and most that no one in authority has ever been held accountable for.
Perhaps it's time for that to change. The nation's veterans deserve better.
Photo Credit: AP Photo