After five years on the job, it is time for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down. (Rob Curtis/staff)
The VA scandal over alleged “secret wait lists” for health care appointments, which may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans whose treatment was delayed, is still unfolding.
Yet the allegations at the core of the scandal are hardly new: A December 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office revealed that four VA medical centers nationwide hid wait times, fudged data and backdated appointments for the purpose of fabricating compliance with department timeliness goals.
That should have served as a top-down wakeup call to clean house and bring overdue transparency and reform to what long has been viewed as the most dysfunctional agency in the federal system.
However, it is clear that in the 18 months since that report was released, VA is still widely failing in its charge to provide timely medical care for the nation’s veterans as demand for those services grow.
Worse, there are concerns that alleged falsification of records at the Phoenix VA included criminal acts, which have brought federal prosecutors into the picture.
Simply put, things are getting worse, not better, in VA medical care. Veterans are the victims of systemic incompetence, negligence and possibly malfeasance.
In situations such as this, the buck must stop at the top: After five years on the job, it is time for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to step down.
No one can deny that Shinseki, a Vietnam combat veteran with two Purple Hearts who has given years of selfless service to his nation, is a man of honor and integrity. And his concern and compassion for his fellow veterans is heartfelt. He has led efforts to get homeless veterans off the streets and reduce the backlog of disability benefits claims.
But going back to his four-star days as Army chief of staff, Shinseki has long been recognized as a behind-the-scenes leader, one who uses his influence outside the public eye. Unfortunately, that’s simply the wrong style for what VA needs now: a forceful, highly visible leader who publicly demands reforms and bluntly details the resources necessary to carry them out — someone who will hold people accountable, bruise egos when necessary and push hard to bring VA into the modern age.
VA will never be fully successful in its broad, critical mission without a comprehensive, system-wide rebuild. It stands today as a model of outdated programs and wasteful inefficiencies.
In many respects, to walk into many VA centers today is to walk into the 1950s, as staffers push paper amid crowded waiting rooms and facilities in disrepair.
VA essentially has become a stodgy federal jobs program that is in deep need of new talent with modern skill sets and the cutting-edge technology to do their jobs swiftly and effectively. The need for investment in IT updates, in particular, has long been critical and today is more dire than ever.
Admittedly, with just two years until the next presidential election, anyone who replaces Shinseki at this juncture would be a lame duck in that role, with an expectation that the incoming administration would want to appoint a new slate of cabinet-level officials.
Still, the rapidly growing wave of anger over the wait list scandal has made it painfully clear that allowing the status quo at VA to remain intact is unacceptable.
The time for change at VA is now.