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Topics: Veterans Affairs

Cascade of scandals has Veterans Secretary Eric Shinseki fighting for his job

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Politics,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs,Accountability,Veterans,Eric Shinseki,Jeff Miller

Eric Shinseki’s troubles began with a "Patton" video.

Now the secretary of Veterans Affairs is facing charges that veterans are needlessly dying on his watch as the head of the largest civilian agency in the federal government.

Scandals have cascaded over Shinseki and the VA since the Washington Examiner revealed in August 2012 that $50,000 in taxpayer money was spent to produce a pair of video parodies that came to define the lavish spending at the two Veterans Affairs training conferences in Orlando.

Those conferences cost taxpayers about $6.1 million, of which as much as $762,000 was squandered on useless baubles like tote bags, pedometers and unnecessary travel, the VA inspector general later found.

Shinseki has been under near-constant fire since over long backlogs veterans face when filing disability claims, big bonuses paid to top executives and, in recent months, disclosures that patients are dying because of inadequate or delayed care at VA health facilities.

“It’s almost like playing Whac-a-Mole,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“VA is living crisis to crisis, and we are addressing them as they pop up. Sometimes we do a Band-Aid on them as opposed to healing the underlying wounds,” he said.

Shinseki was a respected Vietnam veteran and retired four-star Army general when he was appointed by President Obama in 2009. Now pressure is growing for his ouster.

Earlier this month, the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans' group, asked that Shinseki and his two top deputies resign.

The Legion's call triggered similar demands from members of Congress. Thus far, however, Obama says he has confidence in Shinseki and is not asking him to quit.

Shinseki will defend his record Thursday in a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing.

Two years ago, the problems building at VA went largely unnoticed. Aside from a few pointed questions in congressional hearings and gripes from veterans’ service groups about the growing backlog of disability claims, the VA got little attention from the media or trouble from lawmakers.

In April 2012, tipsters notified the VA inspector general about wasteful spending at the training conferences held in July and August 2011.

Word of the VA’s conference excesses began to trickle out even before the IG published its findings in September 2012.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans’ Committee, pressed VA officials for specifics about the Orlando gatherings and overall spending for similar events.

But VA administrators were slow to respond and evasive in their answers. At one point, they said the agency spends about $20 million a year on conferences, at another they said it was about $100 million.

Finally, Miller had enough of the agency's “stonewalling.”

“The truce is over,” Miller told a top VA official at a November 2012 hearing. “Expect much more oversight from this committee.”

After the hearing, Miller told the Examiner he was tired of “the same old crap that VA has been giving us for two years.”

Miller said the committee “will be digging into every possible corner that we can for issues that are not being served for the veterans.”

As the conference issue was peaking, veterans contacted the Examiner about the long waits they faced in getting disability claims resolved.

When Shinseki took office, he vowed that every disability claim would be processed within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy. But the backlogs only got worse.

It took about four months for VA to process a claim for disability compensation claim when Shinseki was sworn in. By 2012, the average wait time was about nine months.

In February 2013, the Examiner published a five-part series, "Making America's Heroes Wait," showing more than 1.1 million veterans with disability claims and appeals were trapped in bureaucratic limbo at VA.

About 70 percent of the 900,000 claims for initial benefits were considered backlogged, meaning they were older than 125 days.

The Examiner series also showed how agency statistics were manipulated to hide mistakes that doomed veterans into appeals that could drag on for years.

Pressure from Congress, veterans groups and the media prompted VA to launch an initiative to reduce the claims backlog.

Claims processors were required to work overtime and the oldest claims — some of which were more than two years old — were given top priority.

The backlog slowly declined. Today, about half of the nearly 600,000 benefits claims are backlogged.

There are about 275,000 appeals, an increase of 25,000 from a year ago.

Accuracy remains a problem, despite claims by VA officials that it has improved, according to a series of Examiner investigations.

“It becomes an exercise in metrics, accurate or not,” said Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America.

“They are contorting themselves and deceiving, misrepresenting, lying about numbers to meet their internal metrics when if anything they should be bending and fighting and scratching to meet the real metric, which is actually shortening wait times,” Hegseth said.

Last year, CVA was the first major veterans’ organization to call for Shinseki’s resignation.

There were some early signs then that VA's failures in delivering medical care were having deadly consequences.

An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease was reported in Pittsburgh in November 2012. Subsequent investigations by the inspector general and area media eventually linked a half-dozen patient deaths from the disease to faulty maintenance and poor management.

Reports of other deaths followed.

Four patients under VA’s care in Atlanta died of a drug overdose or suicides.

In Columbia, S.C., at least six patient deaths from colorectal cancers were linked to delays in receiving colonoscopies at veterans' medical facilities.

VA eventually acknowledged that delays in providing care was linked to the deaths of 23 patients who died of gastrointestinal cancers at veterans’ health facilities. Deaths from other conditions were not disclosed.

As with disability claims, there are indications that VA has been hiding long backlogs in delivering health care by manipulating its statistics.

The Examiner reported in February 2014 that backlogged orders for medical care were being mass purged at hospitals in Los Angeles and Dallas.

Citing congressional testimony and VA’s own internal documents, the Examiner found as many as 40,000 medical tests and other procedures were cancelled in Los Angeles and another 13,000 in Dallas.

Earlier this month, the Examiner disclosed a nationwide purge in the past year that cleared 1.5 million backlogged medical orders with no guarantee the patients got the care they needed.

Shinseki’s latest problems arose at an April 9 House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing where Miller disclosed a committee investigation found that patients may have died in Phoenix as a result of delays in care.

A whistleblower alleged that two sets of appointment records were kept at the Phoenix VA hospital in an effort to make it appear patients were being seen within wait times set by VA policy.

The allegations mirror the findings of a Government Accountability Office report issued more than a year earlier exposing various practices used to hide backlogs in delivering medical care.

Similar reports have surfaced in other cities since Miller’s announcement.

The VA IG is investigating allegations of bogus appointment slots in Phoenix and document purges nationwide.

Shinseki has also ordered a nationwide audit of the scheduling practices at other VA medical facilities.

The response is typical, said Hegseth of CVA. Shinseki responds when a crisis develops.

“The VA only gets its stuff together once there’s media scrutiny on it,” Hegseth said. “Now they panic and start to want to fix it.”

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