Shinseki exit won’t fix VA woes
Friday’s resignation of Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in the midst of the mushrooming scandal over patient waiting times will allow the VA healthcare system and its new leader to focus on improving access and care for veterans, President Barack Obama said in announcing Shinseki’s departure.
“At this stage, I want somebody who’s spending every minute of every day figuring out, ‘Have we called every single veteran that’s waiting and have they gotten a schedule?’ ” Obama said during a news conference. He faced growing bipartisan pressure to sack Shinseki, including from Democrats worried about the scandal’s effect on their November election prospects. He named Sloan Gibson as interim secretary. Gibson is a West Point graduate and former CEO of the USO who joined the VA in February as deputy secretary.
Experts agree the VA’s problems, documented in part last week by VA Inspector General Richard Griffin, will require more than just a change at the top. About 1,700 veterans in need of care were “at risk of being lost or forgotten” after being kept off the official waiting list at the VA’s Phoenix facility. His report confirmed allegations of excessive waiting time for care in Phoenix, with an average 115-day wait for a first appointment. He also found that “inappropriate” scheduling practices are “systemic” throughout the 1,700-facility VA system.
“Replacing Secretary Shinseki doesn’t (solve) the systemic issues the preliminary report has shown,” said Mike Hartford, director of the veterans division at Zeiders Enterprises, which provides social and mental health services to the military.
One of those issues, suggested by the IG’s report, is a shortage of physicians. The VA recently cited 400 vacancies for primary-care doctors. Its primary-care doctors reportedly are responsible for about 1,200 patients each, but many now treat upward of 2,000 and the VA is reviewing how it can ease the pressure on doctors, the New York Times reported. The agency has had trouble recruiting in part because its primary-care doctors generally earn significantly less than private-sector doctors.
The strain on VA staff is going to only increase, with an estimated 1.5 million service members who will be discharged over the next two to three years. “There are some real (infrastructure) challenges to support not just the current veteran population, but also the increased population,” Hartford said.
Some experts are calling for the VA to outsource more veterans’ care to nonVA facilities. Darin Selnick, a veterans’ affairs adviser for the Concerned Veterans for America who was a political appointee at the VA from 2001 to 2009, said that for veterans waiting more than 30 days for an appointment, normal preauthorization rules should be waived temporarily, until the kinks in the system are resolved. “You’ve gotta stop the bleeding,” he said. “Veterans who are waiting right now need to be able to see doctors.”
Some observers are calling for Obama to appoint a respected senior military leader to head the VA overhaul effort. But Phillip Longman, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation who has studied the VA system, said that would only create more problems. Military leaders “give orders and expect other people to actually do stuff,” he said. “It’s just not how the rest of the world works, let alone the VA.”
President Obama faced growing bipartisan pressure to replace Eric Shinseki.