Unequivocally, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., now believes that Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki should not lose his job following allegations that VA health care workers falsified records of wait times for medical care in the federal system.
Republicans have pounced on the scandal, saying the VA's lingering problems and Shinseki's job survival are examples of President Barack Obama's feckless leadership style. But Sanders dismissed Republicans who "suddenly care about veterans." The current scandal, he argued, should not overshadow the retired general's less talked about successes since taking over the agency from the Bush administration. In an extensive interview, the chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs Committee defended Shinseki without pause, arguing that the retired general has presided over a generally positive era in an enormous bureaucracy bound to be rife with mistakes, especially when compared to the private sector health care system.
"No," he said flatly, when asked if Shinseki should quit. "The truth is that that the VA is a huge institution. It does a whole lot of very important work. In many ways, Shinseki has done a very good job," Sanders said, in an interview taped Thursday for CSPAN's 'Newsmaker' roundtable with reporters from Defense One and the New York Daily News.
Sanders said that Shinseki gets too little public credit for taking the VA health system from paper to digital records. The VA now logs roughly 6 million veterans seeking health care per year. Also in that time, Sanders argued, VA case backlogs had been cut in half and veteran homelessness had fallen 24 percent, all on Shinseki's watch.
The senator conceded that no one denies there are problems with the VA system, but said that most veterans' organizations say "without exception…in some ways it's getting better."
"I think there are problems, and I have criticism of Shinseki. I think there have been problems there for a number years, that he has not been as aggressive as he should be in addressing, and I hope we're going to deal with that. But no, I don't think he should resign."
With conservatives wanting to open the VA to privatization, Sanders put the government-run heath care system in the context of the private system, within which 200,000 to 400,000 people die annually because of medical mistakes. "The point is we are a big country. The VA sees six and a half million people a year. Are people going to be treated badly? Are some people going to die because of poor treatment in the VA? Yes, that is a tragedy and we have to get to the root of it. But it has to be, I think, put into a broader context."
Sanders said of the "cooking the books" allegation, "that is outrageous and anyone who does that has got to be punished and punished severely. End of discussion." But Sanders, echoing Obama, said he is waiting to see facts from the ongoing investigation. On Thursday, Sanders blocked a move by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to pass a bill that would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire senior executives. The House passed its measure on Wednesday, over Shinseki's objections. Sanders, however, said he felt that any legislative fix should not get a vote without a hearing and he sought Rubio's support for a more comprehensive bill. Rubio, a GOP star but just the junior senator here, was incensed by Sanders' move.
"He said we may one day pass it, it's a really good idea, but he wants to have a hearing on it first. And I just don't understand that," Rubio later said, fuming on Fox News. "They blocked it. And unfortunately members of Congress will head home for Memorial Day and veterans will keep waiting for accountability, and that's outrageous."
"We could have sent this bill to the president, and next week when the preliminary investigation returns Shinseki could have started firing people that weren't doing their jobs," said Rubio.
"We're going to do a hearing on that as soon as the recess is over," Sanders said. "Clearly nobody wants incompetent people running hospitals. That may be the case; they should be fired. On the other hand, what you don't want to do is create a situation where any secretary can come in and say, 'Well, it's a new administration, lets' fire all the hospital administrators and make them into political tools.' That's not a good idea. So, we're going to work out something on that issue."
Conservatives seeing another opportunity, including Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren during her interview with Rubio on Thursday, called for the Senate bill to expand firing power across the entire federal government. Rubio said he agrees with that idea but deliberately limited his bill to the VA issue to speed its chances.
Shinseki's support is showing some signs of strain. Obama on Wednesday said the fact of the inspector general investigation could dictate the consequences, potentially leaving Shinseki on the hook for responsibility. On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner said he was leaning closer toward calling for Shinseki's resignation, but realized the enormity of theVA's problems.
"This isn't about one person. This isn't about the secretary. It's about the entire system underneath him. And you know, the general can leave and we can wait around for months to go through a nomination process and we get a new person. But the disaster continues. And so I don't want — I don't want people to get confused about what the shiny ball is here. The shiny ball is a systemic failure of this agency."
Sanders was less enthusiastic to argue, as has been Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that the alleged misconduct with hospital wait times rises to the level of a crime deserving prosecution.
The underlying problem, for Sanders, is insufficient and misallocated funding for a system seeing 1.5 million new people entering each year. He argued that allowing veterans to be reimbursed for private care could be a temporary fix for wait lists, but that privatizing veterans' health care would be more expensive than the VA system over the long term.
Sanders bemoaned "the politics of this," while arguing that Republicans wrongly failed to modernize the veteran system after launching the Iraq and Afghanistan wars long ago.
"This is Memorial Day. Let's take a deep breath before getting the issues out there and remember the sacrifices of so many families," he said.