The Veterans’ Administration fiddles while wounded warriors burn

Veteran “wait list” scandal grows to more hospitals; Rockland officials agree VA Secretary Eric Shinseki must be held accountable


VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's head must roll
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s head must roll

The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs has been rocked by scandal after a whistleblower revealed the existence of secret wait lists at veterans’ hospitals which delayed services and might have even produced fatal cases of medical neglect.

According to former VA physician Sam Foote, the hospital he worked at in Phoenix, Arizona had two separate patient lists, one official and the other unofficial and secret. Foote claimed the secret list masked bureaucratic inefficiencies, but functioned as a wait list on which vets could wait for months.

Even more disturbing are claims that veterans were harmed in the process. Foote went on to claim 40 veterans died waiting for services at that particular hospital.

The scandal has only grown from there. U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vermont), who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said similar conditions are suspected in at least 10 states. An anonymous source speaking to the Daily Beast alleged similar deaths occurred in an Albuquerque VA hospital, prompting staff to destroy records after the Phoenix scandal became news.

“The secret ‘wait list’ for patient appointments is being either moved or was destroyed after what happened in Phoenix,” The source, a doctor working at the VA hospital, said.

Problems with wait lists stem from an unwieldy backlog of veterans’ claims from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War. At its height in 2011, 1.3 million claims were pending, though that figure dropped to 1.01 million in 2013. Today, the number of claims over four months old stands at about 300,000.

These problems extend to Rockland. Though Rockland County Veterans Service Agency Director Jerry Donnellan explained to the Times he has not seen anything resembling a secret waiting list in local veterans’ healthcare, he lamented the long wait times and growing bureaucracy keeping vets from medical care.

“When I came to this job in this county, the veteran population was 30,000 in Rockland County,” Donnellan said. “Now that number has dropped in half, yet the backlogs continue. You would think that with half the number of people you would be able to do it more efficiently, but things have gone in the other direction.”

Donnellan argued backlogs for claims and treatment could be addressed by contracting insurance professionals to handle excess workloads. He also proposed more medical professionals could be brought in to assist the VAs. Rockland County Commander of Disabled American Veterans Jeremy Honey echoed Donnellan’s statements, stating backlogs can force vets to wait over a year for treatment.

“Getting into the system is sometimes very difficult,” Honey said. “It takes an inordinate amount of time for a claim to get through the system.”

However, Honey also said once the claims had been processed and treatment is approved, the services at veterans healthcare centers at Montrose in Westchester and at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the Bronx are generally satisfactory.

In a frustrated community of veterans, the perspectives of veterans like Donnelly and Honey are not uncommon. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation Poll conducted in 2013 showed only 38 percent of veterans believe the VA has done a good or excellent job honoring claims, though 82 percent stated their medical needs were very or somewhat well met.

Pressure has on Veterans Affairs to not only address a daunting backlog with suitable services. The Department has managed to cut backlogs, but the new scandal has produced renewed cries for a reform in leadership.

Daniel Dellinger, the current head of the American Legion, urged the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in early May. Though Dellinger lauded Shinseki’s military service, he lamented the bureaucratic inefficiency, apathy toward veterans and aversion to transparency which he argued has plagued the Secretary’s Department.

“We do not see the VA enacting the culture change that it so desperately needs with the current leadership in place.” Dellinger stated. “Senior VA leaders have isolated themselves from the media and, more importantly, from answering to their shareholders, America’s veterans.”

Donnellan agreed with assessments that Shinseki was at least partly responsible and encouraged an overhaul of leadership in Veterans Affairs. “Definitely a change at the top would do it,” Donnellan argued. “For him to stay in office for this thing to go on, either he didn’t know about it and shame on him for that, or he did know about it and didn’t do something. He is in charge.”

With mid-term elections looming, U.S. representatives have taken the opportunity to sound off, with mixed opinions on whether or not Shinseki should resign. Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jerry Moran (D-Kansas) have already urged for Shinseki’s resignation, though Sen. John Boehner (R- Ohio) argued forcing a resignation would only damage efforts at reform.

Meanwhile, big name Republicans have directed their furor at President Barack Obama. Sen. Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell both criticized Obama’s handling of the situation, with Cantor accusing Obama of deflecting blame and stalling on the issue.

“Time after time, President Obama deflects blame to his hand-picked cabinet secretaries,” Cantor said. “Our nation’s veterans can’t wait on an internal White House staff review for this to be resolved.”

In spite of public anger, the Obama Administration has thrown its support behind Shinseki. The White House has stated Obama still has faith in the Secretary’s ability to lead, but has also charged Deputy Chief of Staff Robert Nabors with an overhaul VA backlog policies and practices. Veterans Affairs is conducting its own separate, internal investigation.

Given the egregiousness of the practices in Phoenix, Albuquerque and elsewhere, accountability is a word on the tongue of every observer. Warnings about VA conditions were directed to Obama as early as 2009, but the problem has persisted and now appears endemic.

However, with the revelation of more secret lists, the problem might reach far beyond Phoenix and Albuquerque. Given the sad state of veterans’ services in this country, that would be no surprise. The biggest question now is how many heads will roll.