The resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was necessary, but it’s not enough.
The serious and systemic problems plaguing the department demand not only a change of leadership but also a new culture and, in all likelihood, more money. President Barack Obama rightly made that point Friday in accepting Shinseki’s resignation and in acknowledging his own responsibility for letting this scandal fester.
The VA has failed our wounded warriors, especially those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agency has taken far too long to process their disability claims. It didn’t act quickly enough on mental health treatment, including tackling post-traumatic stress and preventing suicides.
What finally cost Shinseki his job were revelations that veterans were being forced to wait for medical treatment and that some were even dying because of the delays. On May 5, the American Legion called for Shinseki to resign – a stand we supported. Even as more damning disclosures emerged from whistleblowers and reporters, Obama backed Shinseki, a retired four-star general who came in at the start of his administration in January 2009.
The nail in the coffin came Wednesday in a scathing report by the VA’s inspector general, who said that top officials at the VA hospital in Phoenix “cooked the books,” keeping about 1,700 veterans off the official waiting list to meet a 14-day appointment goal so officials could qualify for pay raises, bonuses and promotions. The report also said that “inappropriate scheduling practices” are rife throughout the VA’s 1,700 health facilities nationwide, which provide care to about 6.5 million veterans a year. The report cost Shinseki the backing of Democrats in Congress, particularly those in tough re-election fights.
Friday, Shinseki publicly apologized, saying he had been too trusting of VA health care officials, before offering his resignation to the president. Obama told reporters that he accepted it with “considerable regret,” given Shinseki’s exemplary service in the military, but said: “We don’t have time for distractions. We need to fix the problem.”
Part of the solution, Obama said, is hiring more primary-care doctors and nurses to cut wait times. The VA has 400 vacancies to add to its 5,100 front-line physicians, who are trying to keep pace with a 50 percent increase in appointments over the last three years. That message should get through to those Republicans in Congress who have been piling on the administration to score political points, but who haven’t been willing to fund the VA.
Still, this is a stain on Obama’s presidency. He has promoted his interest in veterans and again declared this week that he is the president who ends wars. Part of doing so responsibly is making sure that those who fought are taken care of when they return home. His administration has not done that.
Shinseki’s ouster should not end the attention the White House, Congress or the public pays to the needs of veterans. That truly would be a national disgrace.