It has been a year since President Obama accepted the resignation of former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with the promise to “do right by our veterans across the board, as long as it takes.” Today, the president is failing by his own measure. Here is a look at how the president’s remarks in 2014 stack up against the persistent, widespread mismanagement that continues to plague the VA:
President Obama: “I said we wouldn’t tolerate misconduct, and we will not.”
- FACT: Citing figures provided to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, the New York Times reports that “the department punished a total of eight of its 280,000 employees for involvement in the scandal. One was fired, one retired in lieu of termination, one’s termination is pending, and five were reprimanded or suspended for up to two months.” “Rather than disciplining bad employees, VA often just transfers them to other VA facilities or puts them on paid leave for months on end,” says Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL), “ensuring taxpayer money is wasted and that bad employees spread their problems to other locations.”
President Obama: “[T]he number one priority is making sure that problems get fixed so that if there’s a veteran out there who needs help, that they’re getting a schedule and they’re able to come in and see a doctor...”
- FACT: An analysis of VA data released by the Associated Press last month finds that “the number of patients facing long waits has not declined, even after Congress gave the department an extra $16.3 billion last summer to shorten waits for care.” According to AP’s analysis, “nearly 232,000 of those appointments involved a delay of longer than 60 days,” and “the number of medical appointments that take longer than 90 days to complete has nearly doubled.”
President Obama: “Secretary Shinseki has now begun the process of firing many of the people responsible, including senior leaders at the Phoenix VA.”
- FACT: Only one person – that’s right, ONE person – has been fired from the VA in the wake of the Phoenix scandal. As the New York Times explains, “The only person fired was the director of the Phoenix hospital, Sharon Helman, who technically was removed not for her role in the manipulation of waiting lists but for receiving ‘inappropriate gifts,’ according to the department.” The Times adds, “More than a year after being put on leave, two top officials at the Phoenix hospital are still drawing a salary while investigations continue.”
President Obama: “We’re not going to stop working to make sure that they get the care, the benefits and the opportunities that they’ve earned and they deserve.”
- FACT: A recent report by the VA’s Office of the Inspector General found that the Philadelphia regional office of the Department of Veterans Affairs benefits division “neglected veteran benefits claims, tampered with quality-control measures and allowed tens of thousands of benefits inquiries to go unanswered for months,” the Wall Street Journal reports. The IG’s report attributes the manipulation, in part, to an internal VA memo that provided flawed guidance to VA employees directing them to revise date information on pending claims. “As such, the reliability of all performance measures related to [agency] timeliness measures for processing claims becomes unreliable,” the report concludes.
President Obama: “And so what we’ve tried to do is to systemically go after the problems that we were aware of and fix them. And where we have seen our veterans not being properly served -- whether it was too many homeless veterans or a disability claims process that was taking too long, we would go at it and chip away at it and fix it.”
- FACT: According to a report by the bipartisan VA backlog working group, “there remain around 461,000 claims that are in the processing phase…nationwide, and 188,000 of which” – 40 percent – “have been pending more than 125 days.” Even the progress the administration is quick to tout warrants skepticism. As Stars and Stripes notes, “as the VA has reduced their claims backlog, the backlog of appeals has grown, leading critics to claim the VA is simply denying more claims so they can be marked as resolved and dealing with them on appeal instead.” “The supposed progress being reported by the VA on the benefits backlogs is a classic shell game,” says Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director at Concerned Veterans for America. “As the backlog numbers decrease, the number of appeals being filed by veterans awaiting benefits has steadily increased to the point that they will soon double the number of claims over four months old.”
President Obama: “One last point I want to make on this: When veterans have gotten access to the system, the health care itself that they are receiving has gotten high marks from our veterans service organizations and the veterans themselves.”
- FACT: The VA inspector general recently made public the results of 140 investigations that detail a “litany of instances of dysfunction or mistreatment of veterans,” including one veteran whose “face was set on fire during an operation in Lebanon, Pa,” USA Today reports. The VA has been faulted in numerous other malpractice incidents in the past, and continues to face criticism for over-prescribing medication, failing to notify patients potentially at risk for contracting Legionnaires’ disease, and falsifying records in the case of an Ohio veteran’s death.
President Obama: “[T]here is a need for a change in culture within the VHA and perhaps the VHA as a whole -- or the VA as a whole that makes sure that bad news gets surfaced quickly, so that things can be fixed.”
- FACT: VA whistleblower Jan Frye recently revealed that the VA “has been spending at least $6 billion a year in violation of federal contracting rules to pay for medical care and supplies, wasting taxpayer money and putting veterans at risk,” The Washington Post reports. “The VA tried to prevent Frye from testifying,” says NPR, and there are several other reports of whistleblowers who have faced retaliation for speaking out.
President Obama: “In terms of responsibility, as I’ve said before, this is my administration; I always take responsibility for whatever happens, and this is an area that I have a particular concern with. … And I pledged that if I had the privilege of serving as commander-in-chief and president, that we would fix it.”
- FACT: The continuing problems at the VA “will almost certainly ensure that Mr. Obama fails to make good on his 2008 campaign promise to fix the ‘broken bureaucracy of the V.A.’ before he leaves office,” says the New York Times. Despite repeated calls from Boehner and other House Republicans over the past year (see here, here, and here), President Obama has refused to put forth a long-term plan for fixing the mess at the VA, prompting Speaker Boehner to pledge last week to continue speaking out on the House floor until he does so.
The House has taken action to help bring real accountability to the VA, passing the Veterans’ Access, Choice & Accountability Act (H.R. 3230) which was signed into law last year. The House recently passed several additional measures to improve accountability and enhance economic opportunity for our veterans, and will continue doing our part to fulfill the commitment we have made to those who have served. However, as Speaker Boehner reiterated last week, “only the administration can change the culture from within.”