Running for president in May of 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama delivered a stem-winder on mismanagement of veterans care under President George W. Bush, recalling the story of an 89-year-old South Carolina veteran who committed suicide after being repeatedly denied access to health care.
“How can we let this happen?” Obama thundered in front of a podium in Charleston, W.Va., that read, “A Sacred Trust; Support our Veterans.” “How is that acceptable in the United States of America? The answer is, it’s not. It’s an outrage. And it’s a betrayal, a betrayal of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.”
A veteran committed suicide because he couldn’t obtain VA care. In South Carolina. The Democratic front-runner for the White House called it an outrage. And yet, when at least six veterans died due to delayed access to colonoscopies in Columbia, S.C., neither Obama nor his Veterans Affairs Department said a word. The deaths were first reported in April. At a subsequent field hearing in Columbia, one veteran testified he contracted cancer because VA doctors ignored pleas for a colonoscopy and misdiagnosed severe rectal bleeding and pain as hemorrhoids. The response from Veterans Affairs officials and, by extension, Obama? We’ll get back to you.
And yet, when at least six veterans died due to delayed access to colonoscopies in Columbia, S.C., neither Obama nor his Veterans Affairs Department said a word.
All this before the larger news that delays in access to health care in Phoenix may have contributed to the deaths of up to 40 veterans. As with the tales of woe for veterans in South Carolina, then and now, the Phoenix story was far from isolated. Before it there was Memphis. Pittsburgh. Atlanta. And St. Louis.
All this, giving rise to a word Obama might remember.
“Our contract with our servicemen and women is a sacred trust. Our men and women in uniform uphold their end of the contract, sometimes at the cost of their own lives,” GOP Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “For us to fail to uphold ours is a disgrace and a betrayal of their sacrifice.”
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has conducted lengthy, probing bipartisan oversight of Veterans Affairs activities, frequently confronting silence or bureaucratic stalling. The committee unanimously subpoenaed emails and documents from more than two dozen officials in the Phoenix VA facility. On Monday it received a paltry sampling of documents from one official. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida said the response was “inadequate” and deepened his suspicions that the VA “had something to hide.”
I spoke at length with Miller about his investigations and about Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, whom he has criticized but has not said should resign.
“I have no sympathy for the secretary,” Miller told me. “He’s had his ability to leave his impression on the agency and hasn’t done so. The bureaucracy knows it will be there longer than any secretary. It just has to get past to the next person and then they [the bureaucrats] can slow-roll the process all over again.”
Miller acknowledges that veterans are pleased with the health care they receive once inside the VA system. It’s the “clamoring” for care and the deaths and sickness related to the mirage-like quality of access to health care that infuriates him.
“Shinseki still believes the VA is serving veterans in a timely manner. It’s a constant excuse we hear. It’s worn thin a long time ago. His people are not serving him well. He’s ensconced in the central office and no one is providing real-time information from the field. They don’t want to tell him the bad news.”
As for Obama?
“The president has been nowhere to be found,” Miller said. “The White House truly thought this would go away over time. But the pressure is mounting. Whistle-blowers are coming forward. They see strength in numbers.”
I asked what Miller wanted from the White House.
“When mold was discovered in Walter Reed, there was immediate and swift action. There was a bipartisan commission appointed to get to the bottom of it. The secretary of the Army, the head of Walter Reed, and the former head of Walter Reed were all relieved of duty. Now you see a lack of an ability to make a decision to hold people accountable.”
That’s why the House on Wednesday will consider — and likely pass with a bipartisan majority — Miller’s Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act. It would give Shinseki the power to fire or demote senior executive service managers for poor performance or mismanagement. Shinseki opposes the bill. The White House is trying to strike a semi-neutral pose, backing the bill’s “goals” but not offering to sign it lest it cast Shinseki farther out to sea (bringing in Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to supervise current VA investigations and reviews was, for now, stinging rebuke enough).
Miller rejects Shinseki’s contention that he has all the bureaucratic power he needs to fire and demote bad actors.
“I have been waiting since January for them to tell us what disciplinary actions they took,” Miller said. “They won’t give us the information. There’s been no disciplinary action.”
Not for Memphis. Or Atlanta. Or St. Louis. Or Pittsburgh. Or South Carolina.
Sounds like an outrage and a betrayal.
Doesn’t it, Mr. President?
The author is National Journal correspondent-at-large and chief White House correspondent for CBS News. He is also a distinguished fellow at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.