The VA mess: Local views

Many local people interviewed Sunday about allegations of lengthy delays for patient care and hidden medical treatment scheduling issues at Veterans Administration hospitals across the U.S. say Friday’s resignation by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki may not solve the problem.

Shinseki resigned his cabinet post Friday, saying the system had developed a “lack of integrity” for the veterans it serves.

The resignation followed a report by the VA inspector general last week that 1,700 veterans awaiting treatment at a Phoenix, Ariz. VA hospital were in danger of being “forgotten or lost” while waiting for services, sometimes up to six months.

Allegations also surfaced at the same time that 40 patients had died while awaiting treatment at the VA facility where, in order to hide delays, some employees reportedly kept a secret list of patients who had been waiting a long time for medical services.

“I sort of feel sorry for the guy, but as the department head anything that happens on your watch can be considered your fault. Honestly, if I had been in his shoes I would have done the same thing,” said Kenneth Dougherty, 71, of Marietta, who spent 27 years as a medical corpsman with the U.S. Navy.

Lauren Chorney of Ford City, Pa., disagreed.

“I don’t think he should have resigned,” she said. “He was the one man who would have been on top of the issue and could have helped with an investigation.”

Chorney said she has had some experience with delays at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh where she once waited six to eight hours with her veteran father who was seeking treatment there.

Leila Schexnider, 27, of Marietta has family members who served in the U.S. military.

“I don’t think it’s fair at all that (Shinseki) resigned,” she said. “That doesn’t solve the problem at all. It just seems he’s a scapegoat. I think others should also be held accountable.”

A four-star general, Shinseki came to the VA post knowing something of the medical care U.S. military veterans receive as he lost part of his right foot after stepping on a land mine while serving in Vietnam. Many Veterans groups supported his appointment as Veterans Affairs secretary in 2009.

“He was a good military general, but I’m not sure if he was able to handle an agency as large as the VA,” said Regis Kern, 68, a U.S. Army veteran and current commander of American Legion Post 64 in Marietta.

But he said there are probably more people working in the VA who should be let go for not abiding by the agency’s regulations.

According to information Shinseki provided to President Barack Obama prior to the VA chief’s resignation, in some cases Veterans Affairs schedulers were pressured into filing false information by some managers to make waiting times for VA medical appointments appear more favorable.

It’s also been reported that VA medical scheduling managers receive salary bonuses based on having health services provided in a timely manner.

“It’s sad that a veteran in need of medical care may have had his care delayed and covered up so that someone could receive a bonus,” Kern said.

Shinseki announced Friday that the government would not give any VA performance bonuses in 2014. He also said the VA would bring it’s authority against anyone who instigated or tolerated false medical scheduling records.

Jon Anderson, 48, of Lowell is not a veteran, but has family serving overseas. He said Shinseki should not face the music alone.

“He has to have other staff members who should have reported problems to him,” Anderson said. “If (Shinseki) was putting off medical services on purpose, he should hang for it. But if this was due to support staff not reporting problems, it’s not his fault.”

Anderson said he has a nephew currently serving in Afghanistan who has also served in Iraq and Kuwait.

“He’s married and has two young children. And I just hope he’ll be able to get the medical coverage they’ll need,” he said.

Ed Tullius, 62, of Marietta is a U.S. Army veteran who served in Germany during the Vietnam Era.

“Getting rid of the top dog is not the solution to the problem,” he said. “I think they’re looking in the wrong direction. They should bring all of the VA hospital representatives together where they can sit down and determine where the problems really lie.”

Lonnie Lewis, 71, of Reno, another Army vet, said Shinseki would probably have had to resign eventually anyway.

“It would have come down to him sooner or later,” he said. “But he has to depend on his support staff to report any problems with scheduling.”

Lewis said he’s never had any problems with services he receives from the VA medical facility in Chillicothe, nor from the local VA clinic in Marietta.

“I have to go to Chillicothe about every six months for some lab work,” he said. “And I’ve never had any trouble. But even regular private doctors may have some delays for patients while they’re taking care of someone else.”

World War II Navy veteran Dick Reed, 89, of Marietta was disappointed that Shinseki resigned.

“I hated to see it. I liked the guy real well,” he said. “On the other hand he must not have had his thumb on everything that was going on in the VA. But I think he did the right thing.”

In the wake of Shinseki’s resignation Reed said the U.S. Congress now needs to work quickly to address problems at the VA.

“They won’t get anything done by sitting around arguing about it,” he said. “Something has to be done. And I think Congress needs to give more money to the VA. If they’re going to spend money, it should be on our veterans.”

The Associated Press reports that spending for VA medical care has nearly doubled in less than 10 years, from $28.8 billion in 2006 to $56 billion in 2013.

But West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller says Congress has not done enough.

“Year after year, when members of Congress have had the opportunity to provide legitimate funding increases for the VA, they’ve done just enough to skirt by,” he told the AP.

VA problems did not begin with Shinseki. Reports from the VA inspector general since 2005 have indicated scheduling problems at national and local facilities.

Legislation currently under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives would allow the VA to fire up to 450 senior executives. A different bill dealing with VA issues is to be debated in the U.S. Senate.