May 30, 2014
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Shinseki steps down from VA

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Amid scrutiny from Congress and others over admissions delays and alleged hidden waiting lists, Eric Shinseki had stepped down from his role as US Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

President Barack Obama announced today that Shinseki had already begun firing people responsible for some of the problems the president described as “unacceptable.”

A report issued 2 days ago by the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) stated it has “substantiated that significant delays in access to care negatively impacted the quality of care at this medical facility” and claimed to have interviewed staff, combed through documents and reviewed performance standards. In the report, the OIG confirmed the use of “secret” waitlists and said 1,700 veterans who did not have a primary care appointment were not placed on the hospital systems emergency waitlist. A subset of 226 people were shown to have waited, on average, 115 days for their first primary care appointment, despite an earlier report from the VA that 14 days was the average wait.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said many delays were due to the increase in veterans from what he called the “9/11 generation,” and influx of the need for more specialized care due to complicated wounds from war.

President Obama made similar comments earlier in the day. “The [No. 1] priority is making sure that problems get fixed so that if there’s a veteran out there who needs help that they’re getting a schedule and they’re able to come in and see a doctor, and that if there are facilities that don’t have enough doctors or do not have enough nurses or do not have enough space, that information immediately gets in the hands of decision-makers, all the way up to me and all the way to Congress, so that we can get more resources in there to help folks.”

President Obama praised Shinseki’s other efforts. “As Secretary at the VA, he presided over record investments in our veterans — enrolling 2 million new veterans in health care, delivering disability pay to more Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, making it easier for veterans with post-traumatic stress, mental health issues and traumatic brain injury to get treatment, improving care for our women veterans.  At the same time, he helped reduce veteran homelessness, and helped more than 1 million veterans, service members and their families pursue their education under the Post-9/11 GI Bill,” he said. “Misconduct has not been limited to a few VA facilities, but many across the country. That’s totally unacceptable.” He also said no remaining senior executives will receive any bonus compensation and announced temporary leadership changes.

Sloan Gibson will serve as Acting Secretary. “Sloan became Deputy Secretary at the VA just 3 months ago, but he, too, has devoted his life to serving our country and our veterans,” President Obama said.

As a senator, Obama served on the VA Committee and said was aware of problems at the time. “I pledged that if I had the privilege of serving as Commander-in-Chief and President, that we would fix it. The VA is a big organization that has had problems for a very long time. In some cases, management problems; in some cases, funding problems. And so what we’ve tried to do is to systematically go after the problems that we were aware of and fix them.” However, he said he was not aware of the magnitude of the problems.

“This is stuff that is eminently fixable, but we’ve got to know about it. And the big concern that I’ve got, and what I’m going to be interested in finding out, is how is it that in a number of these facilities, if, in fact, you have veterans who are waiting too long for an appointment, that that information didn’t surface sooner so that we could go ahead and fix it.”

According to Carney, the administration has increased funding for the VA hospital system each year the president has been in office.

President Obama said that despite waits, the level of care is of high quality. “When veterans have gotten access to the system, the health care itself that they are receiving has gotten high marks from our veterans’ service organizations and the veterans themselves. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that what the review indicates so far, at least, is that there have been great strides made in the actual care provided to veterans.” – by Shirley Pulawski