Senators questioned Secretary of Veterans Affairs at length on Thursday regarding the alleged malpractice taking place at VA clinics throughout the country; and while it lasted more than three hours, the greatest revelation to come out of the hearing was that Secretary Eric Shinseki was angered by the accusations. Yet, he maintained that the veterans healthcare system is “a good system.” That comment, combined with the generally dispassionate tone in which he read his prepared statement to the assembled lawmakers, presented a confusing defense. Unsurprisingly, lawmakers were left split over his role in the agency’s troubled medical system, but many expressed concern over his apparent obliviousness to the situation.
In November, the results of an investigation conducted by CNN revealed that veterans of the U.S. armed forces are needlessly dying because of delays in diagnosis and treatment. An internal document from the U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs obtained by the publication painted a picture of government healthcare bureaucracy that overlooked simple medical screenings, like colonoscopies and endoscopies, that could have prevented a number of deaths. At least 82 veterans have died, are dying, or suffered serious injury as the result late diagnoses that postponed important treatment. Interviews the publication conducted with experts showed that the veterans affairs agency was aware of the situation but did almost nothing to remedy the life-threatening medical delays. Rather, the agency attempted to cover up the improprieties. That picture of incompetence has embroiled the Veterans Affairs department in controversy, and put its secretary on the defensive in front of a Senate regulatory body.
If the allegations prove to be true, as the CNN documents suggest, the Obama administration and Shinseki will have failed to deliver the reform promised when the secretary took office in 2009. “I came here to make things better for veterans,” Shinseki told the senators Thursday, acknowledging that reform had been his mandate. “This is not a job. I’m here to accomplish a mission.” His mission from the president was to change the Veterans administration culture so that it would be more responsive to veterans’ needs. But as CNN’s investigation has shown, system-wide problems remain. VA health clinics in Phoenix and Fort Collins, Colorado drew especial notice for the elaborate schemes used by administrators to hide the records of patients who waited months for care. But now “it seems that every day there are new allegations,” according to Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the ranking Republican on the committee. Five other facilities, including ones in Cheyenne and San Antonio, have proven to have employed similar manipulations.