U.S. Veterans Affairs chief out amid scandal, scrutiny

U.S. Veterans Affairs chief out amid scandal, scrutiny

May 31st, 2014 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki speaks at a meeting of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington. The embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned from President Barack Obama's Cabinet on May 30, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

QUOTES

Sen. Lamar Alexander

"We owe our veterans a debt of gratitude we couldn't possibly repay, so the idea that many are not receiving the care they deserve is unacceptable."


Sen. Bob Corker

"Our nation's veterans deserve answers and accountability from the administration, and an internal investigation at an agency plagued by poor leadership and mismanagement is simply not enough. We need to shine a light on the department's activities so we can begin to resolve the systemic problems that exist."


Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

"I have seen firsthand the inefficiencies within the system through my experiences with my father, and I have worked to increase veterans' access to first-class care with the opening of three new VA clinics in East Tennessee. However, there is still much more that must be done to fix this flawed system."


Rep. Tom Graves,

"The men and women who answered the call to serve, and in many cases rushed into harm's way on behalf of our country, should not return home only to die waiting in line for the care we promised to provide. Fixing the VA requires accountability and reforms that go deeper than the resignation of the secretary."

LET US HEAR FROM YOU

Tell us about your experiences with the VA health system. Contact Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

After hearing that U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki had resigned from his post amid deepening revelations of problems in the VA health system, there was a part of veteran John Inman that felt disappointed.

After all, Shinseki, like the 69-year-old Inman, had fought in Vietnam and been injured there. Inman had long respected Shenseki as someone who helped restore dignity and attention to Vietnam veterans.

But like veterans across the Tennessee Valley and the nation, Inman sees the need for major overhauls in the VA health system.

"If we're supposed to have the best for serving our country and risking our lives, we should have better care," the Lookout Valley veteran said. "We should be able to go a local doctor and take care of our problems, instead of having to go 200 miles away when we're facing an emergency."

Shinseki's resignation marks a month of fallout in the scandal embroiling the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, since it was found that veterans treated at a hospital in Phoenix faced massive wait times for lifesaving treatment while being scheduled on secret lists.

Two days ago, a scathing internal report further revealed deep-seated problems in the sprawling health care system.

Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general who has overseen the VA since the start of President Barack Obama's presidency, had faced mounting calls to step down from lawmakers in both parties.

Obama said Friday he accepted the resignation with "considerable regret."

Following Shinseki's resignation Friday morning, Tennessee congressional leaders rushed to say that it was not going to be enough.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in a statement that while a change in VA leadership was necessary, systemic problems in the VA "run much deeper than one person."

Several hours after Shinseki's resignation, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced that he was co-sponsoring a bill designed to make it easier to discipline senior VA officials as investigations into mismanagement at the VA continue.

"There has been a lack of accountability at the VA, and this bill will allow for timely and effective action to hold the people in charge accountable for their failures," he said.

The bill, named the VA Management Accountability Act, would allow the new VA secretary to immediately fire or demote senior executive VA officials for poor job performance, instead of relying what can typically be a slow, multistep process.

Tennessee members in the U.S. House gave unanimous support to an identical version of the bill that passed last week.

Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., said in a statement Friday that his own father's experience with the VA system showed him firsthand "inefficiencies within the system."

Fleischmann's office has seen a spike in calls and emails from constituents over the growing revelations, said spokesman Tyler Threadgill - something other local congressmen are also reporting as public outrage heightens.

Over the last two weeks alone, the three offices of Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., received 85 emails and calls from North Georgians about the VA.

"This is a President Obama problem, not a Secretary Shinseki problem," said Graves. "How many more veterans will die waiting for the president to step up and lead a major overhaul of the VA?"

While a growing number of Republicans have criticized the Obama administration amidst the scandal, both parties have accused each other of using the crisis as a political opportunity instead of moving swiftly to impose changes.

"We need a new secretary fast, more doctors to shorten wait times, structural reforms in the VA and less congressional grandstanding," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

While Corker's office has also seen an larger call volume over the VA, chief of staff Todd Womack said that since 2007, the office has had "calls and emails every day from incredibly distressed Tennesseans who are struggling to fight bureaucracy within the VA," and has assisted more than 3,000 veterans resolve benefits issues.

Several Tennessee congressional leaders have posted open letters to the VA, calling for third-party audits and more specific details about Tennessee VA medical center and wait times.

Chattanooga, Murfreesboro and Nashville clinics were all examined as part of an internal VA two weeks ago ordered by Shinseki after the Phoenix revelations.

There are 89,000 veterans served by the VA's Tennessee Valley Health Care System, which includes 13 clinics in Middle and Southeast Tennessee, North Georgia and Southern Kentucky.

In April, the VA opened clinics in Athens and Harriman, Tenn.

"That will hopefully decompress the clinics in Chattanooga or Murfreesboro," Jessica Schiefer, spokeswoman for the administration's Nashville office. "We're consistently trying to improve wait times wherever we can."

Inman says he has received good care at VA clinics. But his own experiences with months-long wait times for appointments and the fact that he and other veterans travel 100 miles or farther at times for specialist treatment show a need for change.

"We should be able to see doctors here, instead of driving to Nashville or Murfreesboro or Knoxville when we're getting on up in age," he said.

Chattanooga was once home to a program that tried to do that. After a Chattanooga Times series in 1998 revealed substandard care and medical mistakes at the VA's Chattanooga Outpatient Clinic, an Office of Inspector General investigation substantiated serious delays and shortcomings in Southeast Tennessee veterans' care.

In 2000, Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn, helped facilitate a program to allow vets to get care through Erlanger Health System.

But over the next two years, the VA only referred 58 veterans to Erlanger, instead of the expected 200 per year, and complaints mounted that the VA took months to reimburse the hospital. After that, the pilot was not renewed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.