Topics: Veterans Affairs

UPDATED: American Legion calls for ouster of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign because of the string of preventable patient deaths at veterans' hospitals and the persistent backlog in processing disability claims, the head of the American Legion said Monday.

Daniel Dellinger, national commander of the nation’s largest veterans’ organization, called for the resignations of Shinseki; Robert Petzel, VA's under secretary for health; and Allison Hickey, under secretary of benefits.

Several members of Congress quickly backed the Legion's call for Shinseki's removal.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs oversight and investigations subcommittee, blamed Shinseki for “chronic mismanagement and systemic failures” that include cost overruns in construction projects and “glaring patient safety problems.”

"Secretary Shinseki has failed to provide any leadership for this organization and instead he has allowed himself to be led by a circle of incompetent and corrupt bureaucrats who have long forgotten that they are there for the sole purpose of serving those who have sacrificed so much on behalf of this nation," said Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran.

"If he had these same responsibilities as an Army officer, he would have been relieved a long time ago for his lack of leadership,” Coffman said of Shinseki, a retired four-star Army general.

“If he fails to resign, then the president, as the commander-in-chief, has a duty to fire him for gross incompetence," Coffman said.

Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., a member of the veterans’ committee, also quickly backed the Legion’s call to remove Shinseki, Petzel and Hickey.

“Nowhere else in this country would this kind of lack of accountability and transparency be allowed,” Walorski told the Washington Examiner. “The American people deserve better and veterans for sure deserve better. How much more do we need to see? Enough is enough. There has to be a line here.”

A Veterans Affairs spokesman released a statement late Monday saying Shinseki has no plans to leave.

“Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow veterans, and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead," VA spokesman Drew Brookie said in the statement.

"As the secretary says, providing veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at VA," Brookie said.

Dellinger ticked through a litany of scandals at the agency, including preventable deaths at hospitals across the country and attempts to cover up internal agency failures rather than hold those responsible accountable. Failed administrators at VA have instead been rewarded with performance bonuses and positive reviews.

Shinseki’s legacy in the job he has held since 2009 is one of “poor oversight and failed leadership,” Dellinger said. “The existing leadership has exhibited a pattern of bureaucratic incompetence and failed leadership.”

The legion’s call for Shinseki’s ouster comes amid a growing tide of revelations that hospital administrators have used a series of scheduling tricks to hide dangerous backlogs in patient care.

The Examiner reported last week that more than 1.5 million medical orders were purged without proof the patients got the medical care or tests they needed.

In February, an Examiner investigation revealed that 40,000 medical appointments were purged in Los Angeles beginning in 2009 and another 13,000 in Dallas in 2012 to make it appear backlogs of medical appointments were shrinking.

Since then there have been additional revelations in other cities that agency hospital administrators were using other tricks to hide long wait times, such as keeping two sets of logs to make it appear appointments were scheduled within agency deadlines.

Last month, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, revealed a committee staff investigation uncovered allegations that two sets of appointment lists were kept at the VA hospital in Phoenix, and that as many as 40 patients may have died due to delays in care.

The Arizona Republic last week reported on a whistleblower's allegations that hospital administrators in Phoenix destroyed records to cover up the bogus wait lists, despite an order from Miller issued April 9 that all documents be preserved pending an investigation by the agency's inspector general.

Miller said he will wait until the VA inspector general completes that investigation before deciding whether to join the Legion's call for Shinseki to resign.

"Right now, President Obama and Sec. Shinseki are faced with a stark choice: take immediate action to help us end the culture of complacency that is engulfing the Veterans Health Administration and compromising patient safety, or explain to the American people and America’s veterans why we should tolerate the status quo,” Miller said in a written statement.

The Government Accountability Office found other scams similar to the one used in Phoenix when it investigated scheduling practices at VA medical facilities.

GAO and the inspector general are both investigating procedures used by VA to cancel the 1.5 million medical orders cited in the Examiner stories.

Delays in delivering potentially life-saving medical tests, unsanitary conditions, and poor maintenance and management have been linked to dozens of patient deaths at veterans’ medical facilities across the country.

VA officials acknowledged in April that 23 gastrointestinal cancer patients died after waits for potentially life-saving diagnostic tests, such as colonoscopies.

Agency officials have not disclosed how many patients died of other conditions due to inadequate care.

Dellinger cited bonuses paid to top officials at medical facilities where patients died as particularly enraging.

Michael Moreland, former head of the regional office that includes Pittsburgh, received a $63,000 bonus despite a half-dozen patients dying of Legionnaire's disease tied to improper maintenance. Terry Wolf, director of the Pittsburgh VA hospital, received a perfect performance review.

In Atlanta, VA Medical Center Director James Clark received a $65,000 bonus despite four preventable deaths, three of which were blamed on widespread mismanagement by the inspector general, Dellinger said.

The Legion, like other large veterans’ groups, has long resisted calling for Shinseki’s resignation, opting instead to call generically for more accountability at the agency and backing legislation giving the secretary more power to discipline poor-performing managers.

But the recent revelations about the deaths and possible cover-up in Phoenix, along with similar reports in Fort Collins, Colo., led the Legion to conclude Shinseki needs to be replaced, Dellinger said.

“These disturbing reports are part of what appear to be a pattern of scandals that has infected the entire system,” Dellinger said at a mid-afternoon press conference.

“Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable,” Dellinger said. “But the failure to disclose safety information, or worse, to cover up mistakes, is unforgivable, as is fostering a culture of nondisclosure. VA leadership has demonstrated its incompetence through preventable deaths of veterans, long wait times for medical care, a benefits claims backlog numbering in excess of 596,000, and the awarding of bonuses to senior executives who have overseen such operations.”

The last time the Legion called for the resignation of a cabinet-level official was in 1941.

Beyond preventable patient deaths, Dellinger said he is frustrated Shinseki has failed to eliminate the backlog of disability claims filed by veterans.

The Examiner reported more than a year ago that veterans with service-related disabilities and medical conditions typically faced waits averaging nine months to have their claims for benefits resolved. In many offices, it took more than a year.

At that time more than 1 million veterans had disability claims and appeals pending at the agency.

More than half of the nearly 560,000 disability claims currently pending are older than 125 days, the agency’s own standard for labeling them backlogged. It still takes about eight months, on average, for a veteran to get an initial rating on a claim.

Another 275,000 claims are on appeal, a process that typically takes years to resolve.

Hickey, as under secretary for benefits, is in charge of disability claims at VA.

The Legion’s decision to call for top leadership at VA to be swept out will make it easier for members of Congress and other veterans groups to join the call for Shinseki’s removal, said Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America. Last year CVA became the first major veterans’ group to call for Shinseki’s resignation.

“This is an infected system that doesn’t have oversight, doesn’t have accountability, and today the Legion stepped up to say, ‘We need to hold it accountable at the very top,’ ” Hegseth said. “We agree that that’s just the first step because whoever comes in next has to have the tools necessary to force real accountability.”

CVA and some other groups are backing a bill by Miller giving the VA secretary the power to fire or demote poor-performing top managers.

Of the Legion’s call, Hegseth added:

“It’s a very welcome step, a courageous step. A group like that, that big, that much access, they are risking a lot when they step out this courageously.”

But the Legion’s demand drew opposition from Veterans of Foreign Wars, the nation’s largest combat veterans’ organization.

While the VFW has slammed the agency for what happened in Phoenix and at other veterans’ hospitals, it issued a statement late Monday saying it does not agree with the Legion’s call for the removal of Shinseki, Petzel and Hickey.

Petzel announced last year that he plans to retire.

Last week Shinseki put three top administrators in the Phoenix health care network on administrative leave.

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