Our View: Obama must clean house to fix VA’s issues

May 8, 2014 

Lengthy delays suffered by needy veterans to receive their disability benefits were bad enough. Now we learn vets have died waiting for screening and treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The American Legion was right to call Monday for the resignations of three top VA leaders – Secretary Eric Shinseki, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey. It is the first time in more than 30 years that the 2.4 million-member American Legion has called for public officials to step down. Losing the support of one of the nation’s most venerable and largest veterans groups could make it difficult for Shinseki to be effective.

“Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable,” said Daniel Dellinger, Legion national commander. “But the failure to disclose safety information or, worse, to cover up mistakes is unforgivable.”

The White House said President Barack Obama still has confidence in him. “Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow veterans, and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead,” a VA spokesman said.

The VA also noted the largest combat vets organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, disagreed with the Legion. Instead, it urged more congressional oversight and strong action by Shinseki, who has been VA secretary since January 2009. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said there is a “crisis of confidence” but wants to hear from its members before addressing Shinseki’s future.

Shinseki and other senior leaders have had more than enough time to get things right.

It’s a national disgrace how long veterans have waited on their disability claims. One of the worst-performing regional offices has been Oakland’s, which also serves veterans throughout the northern San Joaquin Valley. There has been noticeable improvement in reducing the backlog, but it has taken a long time.

The VA has also lagged in providing mental health treatment. An estimated 22 veterans take their lives every day. Suicide prevention is now a priority, but it too has taken too long.

The latest disclosures are the most troubling. The VA said last month the deaths of 23 veterans and health problems of 53 others across the country might be linked to delayed cancer screenings or treatment. CNN reported whistleblowers’ allegations that 40 veterans died due to treatment delays at a VA hospital in Phoenix – and that there was a secret waiting list to hide the delays.

The VA already was under scrutiny for preventable deaths. In his latest exposé, Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting documented last month the VA has paid out more than $200 million in wrongful-death payments since 2001.

Top VA officials might not be personally responsible for the mess, but the buck stops with them. If accountability means anything, the president must clean house.

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