Before President Obama gives in to the clamor for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, he should order the retired general to fix the problem, ASAP.
It’s become depressingly customary for politics to trump policy in virtually every realm of activity in Washington. The latest scandal is no exception. A resignation might appease some administration critics — for one news cycle. Meanwhile, nothing would get done about the excessive wait times and allegations that some hospitals kept a double set of books to conceal the problem, leading to unnecessary deaths from lack of service.
To be clear, there are actually two overlapping scandals that require action.
• The first is the systemic dysfunction involving long wait periods, high personnel turnover, insufficient doctors and patients left to wait even when facing life-threatening health problems.
These are problems inherited by the administration, and there are signs that some progress has been made under Gen. Shinseki, who was plucked from retirement by President Obama to run this chronically troubled agency. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are using VA healthcare at higher rates than past generations of veterans, more Vietnam vets are receiving VA care as they age and the agency has liberalized rules for treatment of PTSD.
But progress has not been fast enough. Two years ago, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the VA’s reporting on its medical-appointment wait times was “unreliable” and badly in need of a complete overhaul.
• That could have led inadvertently to the current firestorm. Gen. Shinseki ordered that wait times at the 152 medical centers in the VA system be reduced to 14 days. In places like the VA’s Phoenix facility, doctors apparently tried to game the system by hiding the real number of veterans on the waiting list. As many as 40 patients died while waiting for care.
On this front, Gen. Shinseki’s role has been unsatisfactory. He urged Congress to wait until various internal investigations are done, but that could take until August. The VA secretary himself has seemed maddeningly impassive, other than to tell Congress that he was “mad as hell” about it. Shouldn’t he be hiring more doctors and visiting some of the troubled facilities in person?
Contrast his lack of action with former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2007 when he learned of medical-treatment failures at Walter Reed Hospital. He immediately went to the hospital (so did President Bush), fired the commanding general and promptly got the resignations from the previous commander and the Secretary of the Army.
That is easier to do in the military, of course. House Republicans have proposed legislation to give Mr. Shinseki greater authority to fire or demote senior executives and administrators. Congress should do so — then let’s see what he does with it.
The buck stops with the president, whose silence is baffling. Unlike his reaction to the scandal in the Affordable Care Act last fall, when he repeatedly reassured Americans the problem would be fixed, Mr. Obama has limited his response to a written statement. That’s not enough. If he cares, he must show it.
As for Gen. Shinseki, he should take to heart the example of former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. She ignored calls for her resignation over the Affordable Care foul-up and stayed to oversee the fix. Then, after the job was done, she resigned.