April 12, 2024

Gen. Shinseki is the solution, not the problem


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective
America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The latest scandal to shock Washington is long waits at hospitals administered by the Veterans Administration, waits long enough that some veterans died before receiving treatment. Reports of an allegedly secret system developed to conceal the fact that vets weren’t being seen in a timely fashion has sent the troubled VA into the media spotlight, together with speculation that a former Chief of Staff of the Army, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, might be eased out of his position much the way Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was on borrowed time after the faulty rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. Maybe.

The difference between Shinseki and Sebelius is that the problems at the VA are systemic, and it’s not clear anyone can succeed in administering a network of VA hospitals historically underfinanced, understaffed and overworked. Putting a website in place for President Obama’s signature achievement was an enormous undertaking, but a discrete task that in theory at least should have been manageable.

Shinseki is the latest in a long line of VA secretaries who have taken on the near-impossible task, which is why House Speaker Boehner and other leading Republicans like Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., have not jumped on the bandwagon to demand Shinseki’s resignation. He has done no worse than his predecessors.

VA hospitals have always gotten short shrift. They serve veterans, both retirees and the much larger group who served but did not remain in uniform long enough to retire. Under certain conditions, the VA even covers active duty personnel. Meanwhile, military hospitals, which are operated by the Department of Defense, only serve the uniformed and retired military and certain government civilians. They are reasonably funded and generally get high marks, but Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007 had a full-blown scandal. Heads rolled, and changes were made in staffing and oversight to correct the situation.

But the problems at VA hospitals are not as easily corrected. It’s a separate system, answering to the VA not the Defense Department, and they are well known for keeping people waiting. Anyone given a choice between entering a VA hospital or a private hospital for treatment would opt for a private institution – but not everyone has that choice. People who use the VA are basically voiceless. They don’t have the lobbying groups that active duty military have, which is why this scandal had to reach this point before anyone took serious notice.

Medical services are expensive, and few people have the financial means to seek alternatives. With people living longer and managing chronic diseases, VA hospitals are crowded, and people have to wait. How much of this is Secretary Shinseki’s fault will be parsed out by the Congress, and by the administration.

As chief of staff of the Army, Shinseki is remembered for his warnings during the run-up to the Iraq War. He publicly challenged Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the number of troops that would be needed in the aftermath of the invasion, saying it would take several hundred thousand, while the administration estimated a much lower figure. When the insurgency took hold, Shinseki was seen as prescient. Clearly, this is not a general whose advice is easily dismissed, which is why he may well weather the current VA storm.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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