Veterans Deserve Better Than A Shinseki Retread

I sat a few rows behind General Eric Shinseki as he testified in front of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs a few weeks ago and listened to him dodge every question that came his way about the people who died on his watch. His fabricated outrage (“I’m mad as hell”) and inability to articulate what is actually wrong at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) was more than disappointing—it was infuriating. I hate to say it, but when you either naively or willingly ignore the problems that plague the department that you are in charge of for over five years, you clearly aren’t fit for such high office.

Imagine if you had a family member who utilized the VA healthcare system, only to get told there are no available appointments, put on a secret wait list, and ultimately die as a result of its deceitful practices and mismanagement. That is what happened to more than 40 veterans at a Phoenix VA facility. But it’s not just happening in Phoenix. Whistleblowers around the country are coming forward with new claims of ghost clinics, secret wait lists, cooking the books, and gaming the system. This type of unethical culture within the VA has been persistent throughout Shinseki’s time as secretary.

That’s why I took the announcement of Shinseki’s resignation on Friday as good news for veterans. But that is merely the first of many steps needed to put the VA back on track. The next step is replacing Shinseki with the right man for the job.

Another Obama yes-man is not going to cut it. Not when the VA system is plagued with corruption, and include deceitful—and possibly criminally so—managers. That type of dysfunctional culture cannot change overnight. It cannot be fixed with a new department head who just wants to weather this media cycle, then will return to looking the other way and enjoying the perks of being in President Obama’s inner circle. If that is to be the case, we may have well have kept Shinseki.

The VA needs a reformer. It needs a visionary who isn’t afraid to make some waves, someone who will cut the red tape that is smothering the agency and preventing needed changes. The new secretary must rapidly clean house, especially firing those top-level managers who have long been in their positions and failed to discharge their duties.

To do so, Congress must pass the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014. It has already passed overwhelmingly in the House of Representatives in a rare showcase of bipartisan support. Now it is up to the Senate to make VA reform a reality. It is a common0sense solution that will allow the new VA secretary to have the authority to actually fire top-level executives who are part of the problem instead of part of the solution. The secretary can then bring in new leadership who will focus on real accountability and oversight.

The VA also needs to be brought into the 21st century and make its paper claims system becomes a digital one. That was supposed to occur under Shinseki, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, never did.

The new secretary must tackle these obstacles aggressively and relentlessly. Being the new leader of the VA won’t be easy, and fixing its system-wide problems will be even harder. Yet positive change ought to be achievable. It will take a leader who is open to significant and real change, including exploring private health care options for veterans.

This leader needs to recall the purpose of the VA: It is supposed to serve veterans, not exist for its own sake or limits the services veterans can receive. It’s time to give veterans health care choices. If they are not getting good service from their local VA facilities, they should be able to go elsewhere. In other areas of life, we take for granted that free markets and competition work to provide better services more efficiently. There is no reason this doesn’t hold true for veterans’ medical care. If the VA suddenly had to compete for patients (veterans), it would probably start being significantly more efficient and offering higher-quality care.

That will be a tough change for anyone in the Obama administration, given its focus on proving that government-run health care is good for America. They don’t like the stark reminder this VA scandal has given Americans: All veterans who qualify for VA health care may have insurance coverage, but that doesn’t mean all veterans are receiving care. Sadly, this is also the case for too many of the newly-insured through ObamaCare.

Yet if the administration is serious about wanting to improve health care for veterans, they’ll look beyond these politics and appoint a reformer who is ready to tackle the VA head-on and is unafraid to get his hands dirty. This appointment will tell us whether Obama cares more about his self-image and the politics surrounding his legacy, or the veterans who have served this nation honorably and only now want a safe VA that has their best health and welfare in mind.

I’m not holding my breath for a positive outcome, and I have a feeling that a lot of other veterans who have experienced the VA healthcare system aren’t, either.

Originally published at The Federalist

Follow Amber on Twitter: @AmberBarno

Eric Shinseki should resign or be fired by Obama

As long as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has the support of President Obama, he won’t resign.

Even after 40 veterans are dead as a result of mismanagement at a Phoenix VA facility and more whistleblowers are coming forward with allegations of ethical breaches and fraud in VA facilities across the country, Obama still has “complete confidence” in Shinseki.

At the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing Thursday, Shinseki reiterated that he would not resign until the president asked him to do so or until the mission is complete.

But Shinseki’s testimony itself revealed failed leadership and apathy towards fixing the systemic issues within the VA.

In the two hours he testified, he dodged nearly every question asked of him. He continued to hide behind the president’s words of confidence and the ongoing inspector general’s investigation.

Shinseki barely acknowledged the problems veterans face today because of the VA. He repeated that veterans receive top-notch health care.

He conveniently couldn’t remember receiving reports on ghost clinics or double booking. He wouldn’t acknowledge that there was any evidence of cooking the books, secret wait-lists or gaming the system.

And he also couldn’t name a specific instance of VA employees being held accountable for manipulating numbers.

Such a selective memory from a top-tier government official during testimony shouldn’t be tolerated. It speaks to a disgusting pattern in government where leaders care more about themselves rather than the people they are supposed to serve.

Shinseki is a career military officer. He is a retired as four-star general and combat veteran. He served honorably as a military officer.

And that service should have provided enough experience for him to know that as a leader, you must lead by example.

He knows that when something goes wrong in combat and people die as a result — whether it is because of negligence, bad decision-making or faulty leadership — responsibility goes all the way up the chain of command.

Generals have had to retire early or step down because of such missteps. They are held accountable because they are responsible for their department.

That’s leadership and accountability. Shinseki shouldn’t be held to a different standard just because he now works at the VA and it was veterans who died.

Obama needs to show that the well-being of veterans is truly a priority for his administration. He needs to stop protecting his inner circle and prove that he will not stand for unchecked mis-management that in some cases has resulted in the death of veterans.

Obama needs to hold Shinseki accountable for the deep systemic problems that he allowed to fester within his department during his tenure.

This will send an important message throughout VA that the status quo of no accountability and unethical mismanagement is over.

Unfortunately, Obama has merely chosen to talk about just how much veterans mean to this nation, rather than demonstrate it.

His lack of resolve to hold Shinseki accountable suggests that the president cares more about his administration’s Image than the health and safety of veterans.

He does not want another scandal during his presidency.

Here’s the question we should all be asking: How many more veterans have to die before Obama will make fixing the VA a priority?

With Memorial Day upon us, the Commander-in-Chief should pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice by taking a stance of leadership and calling for Shinseki’s resignation.

It’s time to hear more from this administration than fabricated outrage. Better yet, Shinseki could do the honorable thing and resign.

Originally published at the Washington Examiner

Follow Amber on Twitter: @AmberBarno

VA Failures Killed Veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has failed America’s veterans. The most recent scandal in Phoenix, Arizona that resulted in the preventable deaths of almost 40 veterans is sadly, just the tip of the iceberg. It is a part of a much larger story where veterans have had to suffer the consequences of an inept VA for far too long. And too often those consequences result in death due to negligence at the VA.

Sharon Helman, the current director at the Phoenix VA facility, is all too familiar with scandals that involve the death of veterans. In 2009, a government report showed that VA officials were significantly underreporting the number of veterans’ suicides in the Spokane, Washington area. Only 9 of the at least 22 suicides were reported. Sharon Helman was the director at the Spokane VA facility at the time.

Instead of holding Helman accountable for forging data at the Spokane facility, the VA opted to avoid any form of accountability measures and merely moved her to a different VA facility in Illinois. In 2012 she became the director of the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Healthcare System and is accused of keeping a secret waiting list that resulted in the death of at least 40 veterans. In 2013, Helman received a $9,000 bonus on top of her $169,000 annual salary.

Six veterans died and 22 became seriously ill after an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at multiple VA hospitals in Pittsburg as the result of poor sanitation and management. The Center for Disease and Control reported that the outbreak occurred around February 2011 but an external investigation shows that Legionella bacteria could have been present as far back as 2007. The VA chose not to announce the outbreak until November of 2012. Criminal charges were not filed and top-level VA executives at the Pittsburg facility received bonuses.

Six veterans are dead as a result of delayed routine cancer screenings like colonoscopies or endoscopies at a Columbia, SC VA facility. Their cancers were not diagnosed in time or did not receive proper treatment prior to their death. The number of deaths due to delayed cancer treatment and screenings could be as high as 20. Although the VA is well aware of the delays, there has been no accountability and nothing has been done to fix the problem.

The stories of preventable deaths and mismanagement are not just tied to these major scandals. Reports continue to pop up from Atlanta, GA, Memphis, TN, St. Louis, MO, and Florida. The claims backlog, medical malpractice, failed mental healthcare screenings, unsanitary conditions, dysfunctional mismanagement, lack of oversight and unethical environment all contribute to the VA’s failure. The list goes on and on.

On Monday, President Obama addressed the Phoenix VA scandal stating that the VA is provided with the necessary funding to accomplish their mission of serving and protecting veterans. And he is absolutely right. The VA problem does not involve a lack of resources. VA funding has increased over 60 percent since 2009, from $98 billion to $153 billion. They have the personnel, the funding and the resources to serve veterans and instead, veterans are dying on their watch. It is an absolute disgrace that with that size of a budget the VA continues to fail our nation’s heroes. It is time for President Obama to make this a national priority.

The problem lies within the pure dysfunction of an oversized bureaucracy with no accountably or oversight. It is a broken system filled with mismanagement and deceit that has allowed a lack of accountability to fester within the ranks at the VA. There’s no accountability, no transparency and in some of the cases that have been brought to light recently, no ethical standards either.

It is despicable that the culture within the VA has been allowed to proceed with the status quo for as long as it has without being held accountable for their actions (or inaction). The warning signs were there. Veteran organizations have been raising the red flag for years over the systemic leadership failures.

Veterans have been over-promised and underserved for far too long. With the number of preventable deaths continuing to rise, enough is enough. Our veterans ask for very little in return for their selfless service to our nation. Veterans and their families have made sacrifices that many cannot begin to comprehend.

Our veterans deserve better. No more excuses. No more false promises. Fix the VA now.

Originally published at The Daily Caller

Follow Amber on Twitter: @AmberBarno