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Senator's letter on VA scandal ignites war of words

By Jonathan Weisman

New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 05:13 p.m. HST, May 26, 2014

WASHINGTON >> An open letter from a senior Republican senator to the nation's veterans in which he castigates the leadership of veterans organizations prompted a brutal war of words over the Memorial Day weekend, including a promise from the Veterans of Foreign Wars that its "hat in hand" approach to Congress will turn more combative.

The controversy over delayed access to care at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals over the weekend veered away from allegations of incompetence at the top of the agency toward a broader fight over resources and the future of government health care for an expanding pool of veterans.

The issue carries risk for Republicans because they could be left with a politically difficult effort to privatize at least some veterans' health care or to pump more money into a system covering about 2.8 million veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an option veterans groups have demanded but Republican leaders have resisted.

"What we need to establish now is how we can provide high quality, timely health care to all of our veterans, period," said Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who is preparing legislation for Senate consideration in the coming weeks. "At a time when we have a major primary care crisis, how do we make sure the VA gets the staffing they need?"

The open letter, from Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee -- and the groups' responses -- pushed the conflict into the open.

Burr, angry that only the American Legion has called for the resignation of the veterans affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, accused the groups of being "more interested in defending the status quo within VA, protecting their relationships within the agency, and securing their access to the secretary and his inner circle," than in helping members.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans and the Paralyzed Veterans of America hit back hard.

"For years, the VFW has come to Congress with hat in hand, and for years we've heard the same old story," the heads of the veterans group wrote to Burr. "You can be assured, Senator, that you've done a superb job in showing us the error in our ways. You can also be assured that in the future, we will spend a substantial percentage of our time seeking to inform our members and our constituents of the repeated failure to act by our elected officials."

To that sentiment, the national president and the executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America added, "Perhaps you should have shared with all veterans in your 'open' letter that you cared so much about their health care that you were not actually present during the testimony that the VSO representatives provided, and you did not ask a single question." VSO stands for veterans service organizations.

Burr, along with other senior Republicans like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, has called on Shinseki to resign, a demand echoed by the American Legion but not by other veterans groups or by Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.

But beneath the fight over Shinseki's future is a potentially larger war over the Veterans Affairs health care system itself. Over the weekend, the Obama administration said it would allow more veterans to get access to care through private health facilities to ease the backlog at the VA's 152 medical centers and 900 community care facilities.

Republican lawmakers in the House and the Senate are pushing further. Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, will introduce legislation this week to give any veteran unable to obtain a VA appointment within 30 days the option to go outside the system at the department's expense.

"For the full basket of reforms to take place at the VA, there has to be some level of competition," Burr said in an interview Monday. "The problems seem to be so systemic, and in some cases, so cultural, that unless there's a model that gives veterans some ability to decide where to go, I don't think we will have the means to meet the needs of current veterans, let alone future veterans."

Veterans groups maintain that the VA's services for spinal cord injury, blinded care, amputee care and other trauma cannot be matched by private facilities. Over the past two to three years, Veterans Affairs has had a net gain of 1.5 million patients, 200,000 of them with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, according to Sanders.

Relations between the organizations and Senate Republicans have been strained since February, when Republicans blocked a vote on broad veterans legislation, written by Sanders, that would have bolstered health and dental care, authorized 27 new clinics and medical facilities, added to veterans education programs, and dealt with veterans who suffered sexual trauma while in the military.

Republicans complained that Democratic leaders were not allowing them to amend the bill. But at heart is a budget fight. Republican leaders say that Veterans Affairs is plagued by inefficiency and poor management, not insufficient funds. For the past five years, Congress has largely given President Barack Obama what he has requested, and the VA has had hundreds of millions of unspent dollars at the end of each year to roll into the next.

Burr spared the American Legion, saying, "It is clear that the Legion has been listening to its membership."

He then all but called for a purge of the other veterans groups.

"I fear that change within the VA will not be possible unless and until these organizations also reconsider their role, as well as the nature of their relationship with the VA," he wrote.

The responses were unusually personal. Bill Lawson, the national president of the paralyzed veterans group, and Homer S. Townsend Jr., the executive director, criticized Burr for supporting the filibuster of the veterans bill in February, and said, "You clearly represent the worst of politics in this country."

William A. Thien, the commander in chief of the VFW, and John E. Hamilton, the adjutant general, pointed to a staff with more than 47 combat deployments in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, four Purple Hearts, 16 Air Medals, Bronze Stars and other honors.

"I suggest you compare the more than exorbitant amount of days off you receive, including virtually the whole month of August, two weeks around Easter/Passover, and certainly not a single five-day workweek, to the oftentimes long, arduous hours they put forth every week of the year," the letter said.

"Clearly I hit a nerve," Burr said. "I think they've shown more outrage toward my open letter than outrage than toward the current crisis at the VA."

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Ewaduffer wrote:
Watch it politicos, those military groups have a ton of votes. Match them with us old folks and your careers will be history if you vote wrong. If you think a little outfit like the NRA can give you heartburn you'll be amazed what will happen making us mad.
on May 26,2014 | 04:59PM
false wrote:
Funny how this article tries to blame republicans as if they control two thirds...
on May 26,2014 | 05:10PM
OldDiver wrote:
Republicans have used the filibuster to block numerous bills to increase funding to the VA. Republican's then complain that the VA is not doing it's job. Republicans are shameless.
on May 26,2014 | 11:21PM
HanabataDays wrote:
It's the House that appropriates funds, and that's the 1/3 the GOP does control. The problem is they can't control the renegades in their own ranks -- the attack poodles of the TP brigade. Until they learn some governance skills, they're unfit to run the country.
on May 27,2014 | 12:59AM
ehrhornp wrote:
Perhaps because republicans are to blame. After all under GW, two wars were based upon lies and the VA was cut. Shame people didn't listen to Shinseki at the start of the wars where he stated lots of troops would be needed to provide stability. But no, good old republicans knew better and said it can be done on the cheap. Just another example where republicans turned out to be predictably wrong.
on May 27,2014 | 06:19AM
entrkn wrote:
The politicians who voted against VA funding ought to resign from office before trying to lynch VA leadership before all the facts are in.
on May 26,2014 | 05:29PM
false wrote:
Senator Burr. Big talk from a senior senator who has not spent one day in the military. Chicken hawk is the right term.
on May 26,2014 | 05:33PM
KaneoheSJ wrote:
I am sure that this senator has no qualms about receiving medical services at veterans hospitals for life. You see, Congressmen are given lifetime membership to veterans hospitals for life once they have completed one term. That even without having served one day in the military. That is simply wrong. Will he speak out against this practice? Of course not. But he sure will bite the veterans administration for not providing more timely care to our veterans whose resources are being used by Congressmen.
on May 27,2014 | 12:13AM
Charliegrunt wrote:
Right on, KaneoheSJ, but he probably would if he was given a "nurse practitioner" as a doctor and not been able to get the required annual appointment for over two years, like I did.
on May 27,2014 | 08:21AM
primowarrior wrote:
Veteran's organizations have been fighting for years to get vets the care they need. They understand the situation and what is needed. What they don't need is for politicians to come in and stir the pot for the sake of their political agendae.
on May 26,2014 | 06:16PM
Charliegrunt wrote:
Right on, bruddah!
on May 27,2014 | 08:21AM
whs1966 wrote:
Those who stand on the sidelines ranting for political gain must ask, "Other than finger-pointing, what can those of us in Congress do to help the veterans we so readily put in harm's way?"
on May 26,2014 | 06:37PM
Mythman wrote:
Don't fight the wars if you can't pay the bills, congress. Let the country go to the dogs.
on May 26,2014 | 06:55PM
HD36 wrote:
Very true. We have a lot of special interest groups that have supported the neocon lust for war without reflection of the consequences.
on May 26,2014 | 07:24PM
ehrhornp wrote:
Going to war, especially based upon lies, causes the country to go to the dogs.
on May 27,2014 | 07:21AM
Charliegrunt wrote:
Add on not reneging on promises made. That's a breach of contract.
on May 27,2014 | 08:22AM
CriticalReader wrote:
Time for ObamVA Care.
on May 26,2014 | 08:48PM
Waterman2 wrote:
Yeah right, may as well destroy the VA completely huh ?
on May 26,2014 | 10:20PM
false wrote:
Obama has waged a war on veterans since he was elected in 2008. None of our elected democrats has the guts to challenge obama on his cuts. Please don't send a Democrat to the US Senate this time.
on May 26,2014 | 08:53PM
localguy wrote:
Notice you failed to post any links to support your shibai comments. Must have attended the Nei's failing educational system.
on May 26,2014 | 10:17PM
KaneoheSJ wrote:
Regarding your strongly worded comment that Obama has waged a war on veterans, that is totally absurd. I don't know how you can make such an accusation given that it was the Republicans who would rather shut down government at the cost of care for our citizens including our veterans. Your comment shows just how much you know about the issue or anything else for that matter. Your comment is patently false.
on May 27,2014 | 12:22AM
ehrhornp wrote:
Notice you didn't list anything specific. Actually under Obama the VA has been expanded. Obama gave up the republican philosophy of just say no to Vets and providing coverage. Main reason the backlog hasn't gone away.
on May 27,2014 | 06:25AM
localguy wrote:
If you Google "Incompetent Government Bureaucrat" all links point to Sen. Richard M. Burr. The fool fails realize he and his other government minions were directly responsible for shutting down the government several times, have approval and performance ratings in the gutter, on and on. Sad to see these dysfunctional bureaucrats just don't get it. What a bunch of losers.
on May 26,2014 | 10:16PM
Waterman2 wrote:
I would suggest that at least until the VA Medical can regroup that all vets be issued vouchers for use with civilian doctors and hospitals, etc. Many of us have been paying our own way for years so as not to strain the known weaknesses of the VA. However, now that Obamacare has messed things up so badly we will probably need to tap into the VA and overload it even more, so to help the VA, the vets, and the civilian medical system (that it might also survive) dig into you purse politicos for more than just yourselves and take care of those who paid their dues at least as well as the slackers you currently spend so much on.
on May 26,2014 | 10:33PM
KaneoheSJ wrote:
It is ironic that the very one that would be the first to cut spending on the VA or to shut down government altogether is now the first to blame the administration for this whole problem. What did they think would happen if they shut down government? Government services including those servicing our veterans would be reduced. And that did happen. Now, this senator is putting the blame on the veterans administration for something that they may have helped to exacerbate.
on May 27,2014 | 12:06AM
Kalaheo1 wrote:
"For the past five years, Congress has largely given President Barack Obama what he has requested, and the VA has had hundreds of millions of unspent dollars at the end of each year to roll into the next."

The VA shares some qualities with our own DOE. Namely, it is a huge impenetrable bureaucracy filled with nonfunctioning functionaries. Their refrain is always the same, "give us more money we won't be terrible any more" but more money is never enough and they stay terrible.

It is going to take a radical and complete housecleaning to ever fix the VA. (and our dysfunctional state DOE) but throwing more money into it is not the proper intervention yet.

on May 27,2014 | 03:07AM
localguy wrote:
The same holds true for ALL local, state, and federal government offices and programs. Plagued with fraud, waste, mismanagement, utterly incompetent bureaucrats, the list is endless. Worst part of all is our completely dysfunctional congress and senate, responsible for willfully failing to work our budget on time to standard, shutting down the country, the New England Compounding medical disaster, string of failures is endless.
on May 27,2014 | 08:02AM
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