Ritual head-rolling often does little more than temporarily mollify the loudest critics. But Friday’s resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki probably was both inevitable and necessary to move the vital effort to reform the VA system forward.
Shinseki’s declaration that he feared he was becoming a distraction from that effort is a common explanation for stepping down without admitting responsibility for the problems. But in Shinseki’s case, it may accurately reflect reality.
The problems plaguing the VA today are not directly his fault, and his resignation won’t solve them. However, the persistent calls for his ouster actually were a distraction from addressing the real root of those problems.
Ironically, Shinseki had done a good job of leading the VA in many respects. The quality of care in the VA system – once veterans have access to it – generally is regarded as excellent. And, under Shinseki, the VA had made progress in reducing backlogs of benefits claims, combating an epidemic of veteran homelessness and instituting tough new performance goals.
Some of the primary causes of long wait times and reduced access to care were beyond his control. Troops returning from more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as a growing number of Vietnam veterans swelled the rolls of patients by tens of thousands.
But the VA was ill equipped to handle the surge. The agency adopted an electronic record-keeping system only last year – and it is not even compatible with that of the Pentagon. In fact, the VA and Pentagon are in a long-running and still unresolved dispute as to which system both should adopt.
President Obama has broadened the area of coverage for veterans to include problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which, while appropriate, has increased the demand at VA hospitals. And Congress has failed to provide adequate funding for doctors and facilities, especially in more remote areas of the country.
The issue of of delays in treatment and scheduling problems has been no secret. The Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Inspector General has issued 19 reports outlining those problems since 2005.
But the core complaint that has justifiably riled Congress and other critics is a largely self-induced wound. The latest Inspector General’s report found that the records for 1,700 veterans at the VA hospital in Phoenix had been manipulated to hide the fact that they had waited nearly four months for care and that some might have died while waiting.
Worse, falsified wait times may be widespread throughout the system. Rather than improve the standard of care, employees simply rigged the system to make it look as if they were complying.
Shinseki can’t be held solely responsible for that. But he failed to act swiftly or forcefully enough to correct it.
This is a genuine scandal, and those responsible, from clerks who falsified records to higher-ups who turned a blind eye to the subterfuge, should be punished. But now that the scandal has come to light, the next director, working with Congress, should waste no time in attacking the systemic problems within the agency.
Our veterans deserve no less.