Keep Him! VA Problems Not On Shinseki, Says Sanders

What VA Secretary Shinseki has done to improve the agency outweighs the hospital scandal that deserves larger context, Sanders argues.

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 09: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), talks about big banks during a news conference on Capitol Hill, April 9, 2013 in Washington, DC. Sen. Sanders and Rep. Sherman announced legislation to break up big banks that are bigger now than before a taxpayer bailout following the 2008 financial crisis. 
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May 23, 2014, 8:30 a.m.

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.

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