Like most presidents before him, President Obama has surrounded himself with a cabinet full of gray non-eminences. With the notable exceptions of Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta and Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's department secretaries have been little known to most Americans. Even so, were there to be an award for the most obscure Obama cabinet secretary, it would undoubtedly go to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
His department is the federal government's second-biggest bureaucracy -- only the Department of Defense has more employees -- and it is supposed to care for the noble men and women who served this country in its military. Nobody questions the VA's reason for existence or begrudges a single tax dollar that goes to insure that America's veterans get the medical care and other services they earned in uniform. The department functions above and beyond partisanship. But the VA is in a state of crisis and Shinseki is nowhere to be seen.
For more than a year, the Washington Examiner's Mark Flatten has published dozens of stories exposing the outrageous bureaucratic incompetence, lack of individual responsibility and outright corruption that has come to distinguish the VA during the past decade. On Thursday, Flatten describes how more than 1.5 million medical orders for tests and other treatment were mass-purged by VA officials in 2011 and 2012. Worse, according to a Government Accountability Office auditor Flatten interviewed, it is impossible to know from the VA's sorry record-keeping how many of the trashed tests prescribed in the medical orders were ever actually performed.
Previously, stories by Flatten (and the Center for Investigative Reporting's Aaron Glantz) documented how hundreds of thousands of veterans’ benefit applications were trapped in the backlogged never-never lands of bureaucratic processing. In addition, millions of tax dollars in performance bonuses were awarded to VA executives managing facilities in which dozens of veterans died for lack of proper care. And droves of VA employees attended “training conferences” that just happened to convene near popular vacation destinations. If ever there was an example of a sick federal department, it is VA.
But through it all, Shinseki has been all but invisible. He showed up at a March 13 hearing on the VA budget and claimed his department has everything under control. That was about as specific as he got in response to detailed questions from increasingly frustrated members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. When Flatten tried to interview him after his testimony, Shinseki's PR handlers kept him out of reach.
Journalists aren’t the only ones asking questions that VA officials either refuse to answer or only provide incomplete, often evasive responses. Former VA surgeon Rep. Dan Benishek is chairman of the House subcommittee on VA health and he’s tired of VA’s runaround. “It’s unacceptable,” Benishek said of the responses he’s gotten from the VA. “It’s a 'CYA' philosophy.” A retired general, Shinseki knows better than most that a leader must lead from the front, not cover his hindquarters. It’s time for the VA secretary to show up.