The American Legion is calling for the resignation of Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and two other senior VA officials amid growing reports that some VA medical centers have manipulated data to hide a backlog of patients seeking care.
At the VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, 40 veterans reportedly died waiting to be seen by a doctor.
"As national commander of the nation's largest veterans' service organization, it is with great sadness that I call for the resignations of Secretary Shinseki, Under Secretary of Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary of Benefits Allison Hickey," Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said in a statement broadcast online Monday from the group's Indianapolis headquarters.
"Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable. But the failure to disclose safety information, or worse, to cover up mistakes, is unforgivable, as is fostering a culture of nondisclosure," he said.
In his strongly worded announcement, Dellinger laid at the feet of Shinseki, Petzel and Hickey preventable deaths of veterans, long wait times for medical care, the disability claims backlog, and a system that has allowed senior managers to collect thousands of dollars in performance bonuses.
"There needs to be a change, and that change needs to occur at the top," Dellinger said.
VA spokesman Drew Brookie responded late Monday with a statement that the VA “takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General’s investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken.”
Brookie said the VA has made strong progress toward improving care and services to veterans under Shinseki’s leadership. This includes enrolling more than 2 million more veterans in VA healthcare, reducing veteran homelessness by 24 percent and reducing the official claims backlog – first-time claims not acted on within 125 days – by 50 percent.
Some veterans groups and members of Congress take a broader view of the backlog, factoring in those being appealed or with adjustments pending.
The White House, responding to the Legion’s announcement, expressed support for Shinseki and the ability of the VA’s Office of the inspector General to conduct a comprehensive review.
“The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the Department and to take appropriate action based on the IG’s findings,” the White House said in a statement.
The Legion's call for the resignations of Shinseki, Petzel and Hickey represents the toughest words yet from the county's top veterans' service organizations.
Both the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled American Veterans have hit the VA in recent weeks over the revelations from the Phoenix hospital, demanding the leadership get its house in order.
But the VFW said today it disagrees with the Legion in demanding the resignations of the VA’s leaders, and the DAV reiterated its demand that Shinseki fix the problems without even mentioning the Legion’s announcement.
VFW National Commander William A. Thien said it is “paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this [appointments issue] immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to reestablish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office.”
DAV Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine said Shinseki has to move quickly to repair the damage being done.
“The Secretary must quickly, comprehensively and publicly answer a number of questions that are necessary to give us, all veterans and the American public confidence that the VA health care system can and will provide safe, high-quality care at every facility in the nation,” he said. “VA and its leadership at all levels must be held fully accountable for any failures or wrongdoing that may have occurred or be occurring."
The organization’s next move will depend on how that meeting goes, DAV spokesman Joe Chenelly said.
On Saturday, the Veterans of Foreign Wars offered a scathing rebuke of the VA over the Phoenix allegations and exhorted Shinseki to take steps to restore credibility to the VA system. The group called VA's failure to monitor or audit the appointment processes at the hospital "an appalling example of failed leadership."
The VFW also demanded an end to "bonuses, fat paychecks and positions of those who would violate this most sacred trust."
The DAV on April 24 issued its own statement on the Phoenix allegations, demanding that "if there is any evidence of wrongdoing or knowledgeable neglect, those responsible must be held to account."
Spokesman Joe Chenelly told Military.com on Monday that a DAV official is scheduled to meet with Shinseki on Tuesday, and the organization will decide what to do based on that meeting.
The Legion's announcement comes as the VA continues to be battered by claims that staff at some medical facilities has manipulated appointment dates to hide the fact veterans were waiting months to see a doctor. In Phoenix, 40 veterans are reported to have died while on a secret waiting list.
CNN first reported last month that the Phoenix VA Medical Center kept a secret list of veterans seeking appointments. An official list, much shorter, enabled the hospital to show that it was getting patients in for appointments within 14 days, in keeping with VA performance standards.
Up to 1,600 patients were waiting months, if not longer than a year, to be seen. CNN quoted retired VA doctor Sam Foote who told the news channel that up to 40 patients died while on the list.
On Sunday, USA Today reported that clerical staff at the Fort Collins hospital was instructed last year how to falsify appointment records so it appeared doctors were seeing patients within the department's goal of 14 days. Staffers whose records revealed that a patient waited longer than 14 days were put on a "bad boys list," according to the paper, which based its report on a VA internal investigation.
The investigation found that many of the 6,300 patients treated at the Fort Collins facility waited months to see a doctor.
In 2012, a whistleblower who resigned from the Manchester, New Hampshire, Veterans Medical Center, told Congress that VA officials routinely conference on ways to get around performance standards.
-- Bryant Jordan can be reach at email@example.com