Thursday morning Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki came before the Senate Veterans Affairs committee and proclaimed—with a straight face—that the VA health care system is “a good system.”
While Politifact has already deemed President Obama’s infamous “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it” the lie of the year—Shinseki’s statement ranks a close, and unfortunate, second.
The totality of the Secretary’s remarks before the committee Thursday were not only deceptive, they were detached, defensive, and unbefitting a leader who, by now, should be fighting mad about the scandals engulfing VA, firing those responsible, and fundamentally challenging every assumption he has about the manner in which care is provided to our veterans.
Instead, Shinseki played the role of aloof bureaucrat, reading dispassionately from his prepared remarks in a monotone voice, as if this was a run-of-the-mill budget hearing. Shinseki’s comments were spot on in that respect—a perfect personification of VA’s indifferent and unaccountable bureaucracy.
As my organization Concerned Veterans for America has been saying for years—and Fox News has been reporting aggressively—the VA is an infected bureaucracy, incapable of delivering timely care to veterans; instead, the VA has been cooking the books to preserve the jobs and bonuses of senior officials.
The Phoenix VA scandal has been the most publicized example—with as many as 40 veterans allegedly dying while waiting on a secret list.
But Phoenix is just the tip of the iceberg, with another half-dozen whistleblowers from across the country stepping up in the past few weeks to reveal similar secret lists.
Plain and simple—the VA is failing in its core mission to veterans: providing timely and quality healthcare. Across the country, veterans are waiting months for basic appointment, let alone specialized care.
By VA’s own account, only 41 percent of veterans are seen for a medical appointment within 14 days; a number that is certainly dramatically lower in light of how VA has cooked the books on appointments.
Wait times of weeks and months are unacceptable anywhere, let alone for our veterans.
As for the quality of care, while it is great at many facilities, it has been uneven at others—just ask the families of veterans in Pittsburgh and Atlanta about deaths that could have been prevented due to medical malpractice.
All of this is unacceptable.
As a result of these revelations and his performance before Congress Thursday, there will be more calls for Shinseki to resign, and rightfully so. But that action alone would not solve this problem. Just as the problem is more than just the scandal in Phoenix, the problems at VA are much larger than Shinseki.
Shinseki should be fired immediately—as my group, the American Legion, and many Senators have called for—but that is only the beginning.
Fundamental reform is needed, from top to bottom, to shake up a calcified and unaccountable bureaucracy. These reforms start with accountability at the very top, and throughout VA.
VA must also be made more transparent, and the benefits veterans have earned should be more portable—meaning if you can’t get timely or convenient care at a local VA, you can go elsewhere.
It also must be made clear that the problems at VA are not funding problems. Some individuals testified Thursday that more money might solve the problem. This is bogus.
Sure, there are certain aspects of VA that could use additional funding, but reallocation of existing funds would be more than sufficient.
In Phoenix alone, 59% of salaries are spent on administration and operations, not medical care.
The VA bureaucracy is very adept at gobbling up additional funding; so before we spend more money on VA, we need to reform it. Let’s stop throwing more money at a bureaucracy incapable of using it wisely or efficiently.
Finally, some members at Thursday’s hearing pointed, with hopeful expectation, toward the White House’s decision to appoint a top Obama political operative to oversee a VA “review.”
Count me as underwhelmed and skeptical about it.
The White House has zero incentive to find wrongdoing at VA, and I have very little faith that anything substantive will be found from this investigation.
Only a bipartisan and independent investigation will do the job, and Congress should press for one; but not at the expense of immediate and real reform.
If one thing was clear today, it’s that Congress should get to work providing much-needed oversight for VA.
The House and Senate would be wise to start with the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, a bill that would allow senior managers at VA to actually be fired.
It’s common sense, non-partisan, and long-overdue reform. The bill is not a silver bullet, but is a great start.
It will likely see a vote soon in the House; but the question is whether the Senate, with all the Republican and Democratic bluster we witnessed on Thursday, will step up to the plate and pass an actual piece of reform legislation.
For Congress, and the White House, it’s put up or shut up time.
Pete Hegseth is the former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and the former executive director of Vets for Freedom. A Fox News contributor, he is an infantry officer in the Army National Guard and has served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.