They call him “No Drama Obama” for a reason. Most of the time, it’s Professor Obama who meets with us White House reporters: notorious for showing no emotion and taking so long to answer questions that, by the time he stops talking, everybody forgets what the question was in the first place.
Not this week. It wasn’t Professor Obama who came into the briefing room on May 21, direct from his Oval Office meeting with Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. It was Top Cop Obama, clearly “mad as hell” about reports of shocking neglect of veterans at our VA hospitals – and determined to do something about it.
“When I hear allegations of misconduct – any misconduct – whether it’s allegations of VA staff covering up long wait times or cooking the books,” declared the president, “I will not stand for it. Not as commander in chief, but also not as an American.” Showing a fire seldom seen, he added: “If these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it – period.”
But if you were expecting Obama to be another Adam Silver, you were disappointed. He didn’t drop the hammer on Eric Shinseki the way Silver did on Donald Sterling. Instead, the president went out of his way to praise the secretary – “Nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki” – while tasking him with reviewing problems in all VA hospitals and reporting back to him within a month – which, given the gravity of the problem, is too little, too late.
Obama’s right to be angry. Yes, it’s a fact that problems with the VA have festered for decades. It’s a fact that the VA’s the second-largest federal agency, serving 6.5 million people a year and 230,000 patients a day – and with any agency that size, there are going to be problems. It’s a fact that today’s VA faces greater pressure than ever before because of the flood of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of whom are living longer with serious injuries and requiring more care. And nobody disputes, as the president pointed out, that his administration, under Gen. Shinseki, has made vast improvements in the VA, extending benefits to 2 million veterans who didn’t have them before and cutting the backlog in disability claims in half.
But that in no way excuses the abuses that allegedly occurred in Phoenix and at least seven other cities. According to three VA officials in Phoenix, as first reported by CNN, doctors kept secret lists of patients waiting for treatment, only moving them to the “official” list when there was an open spot and they could thereby meet the agency’s goal of waiting no more than two weeks for an appointment. Such cooking of the books was also reportedly routine in VA facilities in South Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas, New Mexico and Illinois. Emails detailing how to falsify records have surfaced in Colorado, Wyoming and Virginia, where one employee wrote: “Yes, it is gaming the system a bit. But you have to know the rules of the game you are playing, and when we exceed the 14-day measure, the front office gets very upset.”
Phoenix whistleblowers claim delays caused up to 40 otherwise preventable deaths; the VA itself admits 23 patients died from having to wait too long. Meanwhile, the VA acknowledges handing out annual performance bonuses averaging $8,000 to doctors and hospital administrators, including some of those under investigation – in effect, rewarding them for cooking the books and shortchanging patients. The VA reportedly paid out $150 million in performance bonuses in 2011.
All of which raises the question: Why is Secretary Shinseki still on the job? Granted, as stated above, problems at the VA began far before Obama became president. But, unfortunately, the latest reports of delays, deaths and cover-ups now overshadow both improvements to the VA made by the Obama administration and the excellent care most patients at VA clinics and hospitals receive every day.
Shinseki wasn’t on the ground in Phoenix or other VA facilities. But this widespread misconduct happened on his watch and continued despite multiple warnings of phony record-keeping over the years. If he’s not responsible, who is? He, more than anyone, should understand: “The buck stops here.”
It may be true, as President Obama says, that nobody cares more about veterans than Ric Shinseki. It’s also true that nobody let them down more. Shinseki must go.