By Anthony Zurcher Editor, Echo Chambers
A growing scandal is consuming the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and has prompted cross-party calls for President Barack Obama to sack the person in charge, Secretary Eric K Shinseki.
The anger centres around reports that the VA has covered up months-long patient backlogs in its hospitals, which care for ex-members of the US military.
Retired VA physician Sam Foote made headlines recently when he told CNN that the hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked had two patient lists – an “official” one that was sent to superiors in Washington DC and a real one, which showed that some veterans endured delays of up to a year to see government doctors.
He said that as many as 40 people died while waiting for scheduled appointments.
Although the Phoenix story has received the most attention, there are reports of similar delays at other VA facilities, which raise the possibility that such cover-ups are a department-wide problem.
On Thursday Mr Shinseki, who has served as VA secretary since Mr Obama took office in 2009, appeared before a congressional committee to address the allegations. He said he was “mad as hell”, but declined to go into details, citing an ongoing internal department investigation.
This has prompted ire from military and veterans groups, which have been outspoken in their criticism of the VA and the Obama administration’s handling of the situation so far.
Earlier this month Daniel Dellinger, head of the American Legion, a veterans group with 2.4 million members, called for Mr Shinseki to resign.
“We do not see the VA enacting the culture change that it so desperately needs with the current leadership in place,” he writes in the Arizona Republic. “Senior VA leaders have isolated themselves from the media and, more importantly, from answering to their shareholders, America’s veterans.”
On Friday the Army Times, a widely read independent publication serving the US Army community, also said Mr Shinseki should step down.
“Simply put, things are getting worse, not better, in VA medical care,” the editors write. “Veterans are the victims of systemic incompetence, negligence and possibly malfeasance.”
The calls for Mr Shinseki’s head have been complicated by the fact that the secretary is a highly respected retired Army officer, who served as a foot soldier in Vietnam, where he received two Purple Heart awards for injury in combat. He rose through the ranks to become a four-star general and chief of staff of the Army.
He is a hero with an “admirable record”, write the editors of the Orlando Sentinel.
“His patriotism and sacrifice for this nation are above reproach,” says Mr Dellinger.
The editors of the Army Times write that while Mr Shinseki is a man of “honour and integrity”, he lacks the ability to adequately address his department’s incompetence and possible corruption:
Shinseki has long been recognised as a behind-the-scenes leader, one who uses his influence outside the public eye. Unfortunately, that’s simply the wrong style for what VA needs now: a forceful, highly visible leader who publicly demands reforms and bluntly details the resources necessary to carry them out – someone who will hold people accountable, bruise egos when necessary and push hard to bring VA into the modern age.
“The VA,” they write, “has essentially become a stodgy federal jobs programme that is in deep need of new talent with modern skill sets and the cutting-edge technology to do their jobs swiftly and effectively.”
There’s a political angle to the controversy as well – there always is. Conservative critics have sharpened their attacks on what they see as Mr Obama’s failure to address the department’s ongoing troubles.
The Daily Caller’s Patrick Howley quotes Mr Obama’s 2008 announcement of Mr Shinseki’s nomination to the VA post.
“No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans,” Mr Obama said. “No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need.”
Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said: “It’s time President Obama personally answer for the horrific conditions and abuses occurring at our veterans facilities.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his concern is that “the Obama administration will treat this scandal like it does all the others, like a political crisis to get past rather than a serious problem to be solved.”
Some on the left have tried to pin the blame on congressional Republicans such as Mr McConnell, who they say failed to appropriate the funds necessary to provide for the growing number of veterans of modern wars.
The editors of Truthout write:
Republicans don’t really care about veterans or the VA, they just care about using this controversy to discredit the president and his Democratic Party – there is an election coming up, after all – and as a twofer, discredit the idea of government-run healthcare programs like the VA.
Former senator and administrator of the VA Max Cleland, who is also a decorated Vietnam veteran, has come to Mr Shinseki’s defence, saying calls for the secretary’s resignation are “ill-advised and misguided”.
He writes in Politico Magazine that Mr Shinseki has accomplished a great deal as head of the department, including a 24% reduction in veteran homelessness, an increase in VA enrolment of two million and a customer satisfaction rating equal to that of private hospitals.
Nevertheless, writes Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, this is “authentic scandal”, although he notes that “Republicans have accused the Obama administration of so many faux scandals that it’s hard to recognise the real thing”.
“If VA hospitals really are falsifying records to disguise lengthy waiting times – and if veterans are dying as a consequence – then President Obama needs to bring in new management to fix the problems and fast,” he says.
He concludes: “The solemn promises we make to our veterans cannot be broken. There’s no need for histrionics from President Obama. But he does need to clean house.”