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Obama and Congress move to address VA firestorm

By Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 09:18 a.m. HST, May 17, 2014

WASHINGTON >> The Obama administration and Congress are moving quickly to respond to a growing political firestorm over allegations of treatment delays and falsified records at veterans' hospitals nationwide.

The top official for veterans' health care resigned Friday, and House Republicans scheduled a vote for Wednesday on legislation that would give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators at the agency and its 152 medical centers.

The actions came as federal investigators visited a VA hospital in suburban Chicago to look into an allegation that secret lists were used to conceal long patient wait times for appointments. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., meanwhile, called for an investigation into reports that schedulers at a VA medical center in Albuquerque were ordered to falsify patient appointment records.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the Veterans Affairs Department is suffering from "a systemic, cultural problem" that cannot be solved with piecemeal responses, such as the resignation of a top official.

"What's needed is a total refocusing of the VA on its core mission of serving veterans -- stretching from its top political leadership all the way through to its career civil servants," McCain said Saturday in the weekly Republican radio and Internet address.

Citing news reports that VA managers received performance bonuses even as internal audits revealed lengthy wait times for health care, McCain said top VA officials too often have been "motivated by all the wrong incentives and rewards."

McCain, a Vietnam veteran, said Congress must give VA administrators greater ability to hire and fire those charged with caring for veterans, as well as give veterans greater flexibility in how they get quality care in a timely manner.

Reports of long waits for appointments and processing benefit applications have plagued the VA for years. Officials have shortened benefits backlogs, but allegations of preventable deaths that may be linked to delays at the Phoenix VA hospital have triggered an election-year uproar. A former clinic director said up to 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital, even as hospital staff kept a secret appointment list to mask the delays.

A VA nurse in Cheyenne, Wyoming, was put on leave for allegedly telling employees to falsify appointment records. A VA investigation in December found that staffers at a Fort Collins, Colorado, clinic were trained to make it appear as if veterans got appointments within 14 days, as VA guidelines suggest.

Problems also have been reported in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Florida and others.

Amid a growing outcry, the administration and Congress took steps to reassure the public that problems are being addressed.

Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary for health care, had been scheduled to retire this year but instead stepped down Friday. Petzel had said he would remain until the Senate confirmed a replacement, but a department official said Shinseki asked Petzel to leave immediately.

Republicans denounced the move as a hollow gesture. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, called the announcement "the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak." Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Shinseki's "reticence to hold fellow bureaucrats at the VA accountable is exactly why we need new leadership that is willing to take swift action to ensure we are living up to our promises to our nation's heroes."

Cornyn is among a handful of Republicans who have called for Shinseki to resign. The American Legion, one of the nation's largest veterans groups, also has called for Shinseki's resignation and called Petzel's departure "a continuation of business as usual."

The White House said President Barack Obama supports Shinseki's decision to remove Petzel and that Obama is "committed to doing all we can to ensure our veterans have access to timely, quality health care."

Petzel's resignation came a day after he and Shinseki were grilled at a four-hour hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, where lawmakers and veteran groups expressed exasperation at long-standing problems.

In his position, Petzel oversaw what officials say is the largest health care delivery system in the U.S. The VA operates 1,700 hospitals, clinics and other facilities around the country, serving about 6.5 million veterans and other beneficiaries each year.

Miller, who wrote the legislation that the House will take up next week, said Congress must act, because the VA is "apparently unwilling to take substantive actions to hold any of its leaders accountable."

Shinseki on Thursday told senators he was "mad as hell" about allegations of severe problems and that he was looking for quick results from a nationwide audit. He has rejected calls for him to resign.


Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this report.

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kekelaward wrote:
Shinseki needs to be brought up on charges. They are fast tracking the traitor Bradley Manning's sex change operation (paid for by the taxpayers) while letting honorably discharged vets die painful deaths. Disgusting.
on May 17,2014 | 09:59AM
localguy wrote:
Shinseki on charges. Ohh puhleeze, you haven't got a clue. If anyone should be on charges or fired it is our totally dysfunctional senate and congress. Decades of willful mismanagement, can't work our budget on time, to standard, were directly responsible for the New England Compounding disaster - people died. Surgeon General told congress FDA oversight was required, congress said no. They are responsible for the sick and dying people.
on May 17,2014 | 10:21AM
Winston wrote:
The management of the VA is an executive branch function.
on May 17,2014 | 04:59PM
Maneki_Neko wrote:
Shinseki needs to go. It's the only honorable action. He has had 5 years to dig in to the VA problems and there is no excuse to have been ignorant of these failings. Obviously he did not cause the problems but they occurred on his watch, when he was the guy where the buck should stop. Gotta go.
on May 17,2014 | 12:38PM
Mythman wrote:
John McCain is right - systematic rehaul of the whole VA system, not piecemeal for show firings and resignations. Too much political interference - my research showed Sen Dan I had his hand in how things were set up to work with the local political insider system first and foremost. Dan I was not a god but he was a godfather.
on May 17,2014 | 12:49PM
Mythman wrote:
Our very own local VA, Spark Matsunaga, has been plagued by the mental health department, my research shows, being controlled by the U of H medical school so it favors the people doing their practicums and as such is not focused directly on veterans who need specific help with their impulse control and other combat related issues. The intake is geared to make it seem the vets are ok with females studying to become child psychiatrists when they are just being used by U of H. When reported to the VA IG, this was ignored.
on May 17,2014 | 12:45PM
niimi wrote:
kekelaward has too shallow a view of how systemic the issues are at the VA. The issues are at all layers of the VA where "all the action happens."
on May 17,2014 | 01:46PM
lee1957 wrote:
They is who? Manning belongs to the Department of Defense, not the VA. Get a clue and a grip.
on May 17,2014 | 02:57PM
entrkn wrote:
The misdeeds of these mid and lower level VA administrators are criminal in nature and should be treated as crimes. I don't want to hear about any "early retirements" or "suspensions".
on May 17,2014 | 10:32AM
serious wrote:
I thing what Congress is suggesting is to get rid of the Civil service rules and give the Administrator the authority to fire for incompetence rather than going through a Civil Service tribunal.
on May 17,2014 | 11:18AM
cojef wrote:
The Civil Service System as you know is not there. The IRS scandal is a good example how it has been politicized by Democratic senators to go after conservative "tea party" applicants for tax free statuses as the emails received by the Judicial Review request indicate. Partly to blame is the unionization of civil servants. You cannot fire a employee without extensive and exhaustive processes and even then it can be appealed and reversed for some asinine reason.
on May 17,2014 | 02:31PM
DAGR81 wrote:
Obama should be fired.
on May 17,2014 | 12:03PM
Mythman wrote:
Firing Pres O would be like firing Saint Nicholas and the Tooth Fairy.....
on May 17,2014 | 12:49PM
niimi wrote:
A Tooth fairy with horns.
on May 17,2014 | 01:47PM
serious wrote:
And, since we have probably the largest number--percentage wise of veterans and military of any state---our Federal Legislators, in this election year and saying?????
on May 17,2014 | 01:30PM
niimi wrote:
The issues are endemic to the culture of the entire VA health care organization, from the rank and file, and all levels of management. This requires a house cleaning of the macro type. Notice that the more money you throw at it the worst it gets? That's a systemic problem that has been going on for decades. The only way you get to all the dirt is to encourage hundreds of whistleblowers to come forward and tell all in front of the nation.
on May 17,2014 | 01:45PM
cojef wrote:
The whole VA should be revamped. Start over, you cannot repair a defective system piece meal and piece meal. Like trying to repair a leaky hose, patch a hole and another appears. There is no end.
on May 17,2014 | 02:36PM
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