Veterans Affairs Secretary Says He’s ‘Mad as Hell’ About Incompetence at VA Hospitals

Eric Shinseki testified before a Senate hearing about reports of long wait times across the country.

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (left) and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel testify before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care on May 15.
National Journal
Marina Koren
May 15, 2014, 7:20 a.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress are not happy with the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment right now. And the man who runs it says he isn’t either.

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki test­i­fied be­fore the Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee on Thursday morn­ing about re­ports that at least 40 vet­er­ans died while wait­ing for med­ic­al care at a Phoenix VA hos­pit­al, and that fa­cil­it­ies across the coun­try use secret lists to mask long wait­ing peri­ods for doc­tors’ ap­point­ments.

“Any al­leg­a­tion, any ad­verse in­cid­ents like this, makes me mad as hell,” Shin­seki told the com­mit­tee. “I could use stronger lan­guage here, Mr. Chair­man, but in de­fer­ence to the com­mit­tee, I won’t.”

Op­er­a­tion­al dys­func­tion at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment — which switched to a com­puter fil­ing sys­tem just last year — is not new. It has has long been cri­ti­cized for its massive back­log of re­cords and its long wait­ing peri­ods for med­ic­al ap­point­ments. More than 300,000 claims to the de­part­ment have been pending for 125 days or more.

The Of­fice of the In­spect­or Gen­er­al has opened an in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion at the cen­ter in Phoenix. If the al­leg­a­tions are found to be true, Shin­seki said, “re­spons­ible and timely ac­tion will be taken.”

Sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress have called for Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion in the wake of re­cent re­ports of treat­ment delays. So has the Amer­ic­an Le­gion, one of the coun­try’s most in­flu­en­tial vet­er­ans’ or­gan­iz­a­tions.

Some law­makers are so frus­trated that Sen. John Mc­Cain, who is not a mem­ber of the Sen­ate Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, asked to ad­dress the hear­ing pan­el­ists, in­clud­ing Shin­seki, on Thursday morn­ing.

“My fel­low vet­er­ans can­not wait the many months it might take to com­plete the re­port,” the Re­pub­lic­an from Ari­zona said of the in­de­pend­ent in­vest­ig­a­tion. “They need an­swers, ac­count­ab­il­ity, and lead­er­ship from this ad­min­is­tra­tion and Con­gress now. Clearly, the VA is suf­fer­ing from sys­tem­ic prob­lems in its cul­ture that re­quires strong-minded lead­er­ship and ac­count­ab­il­ity to ad­dress.”

Oth­ers wondered why the de­part­ment has not fired any vet­er­ans af­fairs em­ploy­ees over re­ports of mis­man­age­ment, but Shin­seki could not provide in­form­a­tion about em­ploy­ment ter­min­a­tion. 

“I do want an an­swer, be­cause this to me is a fun­da­ment­al is­sue,” Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich of Alaska said. “As a former may­or, we would fire them. They would be gone.”

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