June 10, 2014
Brian Tumulty, Democrat and Chronicle
WASHINGTON – Five more members of New York’s congressional delegation are calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign in the wake of a scathing report citing lengthy treatment delays at VA facilities.
Until this week, Republican Rep. Chris Collins of the Buffalo area was alone among the state’s 29 House and Senate lawmakers in calling for the decorated Vietnam War veteran’s resignation.
Within 24 hours after release of the new report by the VA’s inspector general, Reps. Tom Reed, R-Corning; Richard Hanna, R-Barneveld; Rep. Chris Gibson, R-Kinderhook; Rep. Nita Lowey, D-Harrison; and Rep. Dan Maffei, D-Syracuse, said Shinseki should step down.
“VA Secretary Shinseki’s military service to our country cannot be overlooked. However, the systemic problems within the VA are too great for Secretary Shinseki to continue leading the organization,” Reed said in a statement. “He must resign.”
The inspector general’s report found that 226 veterans waited an average 115 days for their first primary care appointment at the VA’s Phoenix Health Care system. The findings, which essentially substantiate media reports of secret waiting lists that masked veterans’ true wait times, identify 1,700 veterans who were waiting for a primary care appointment but weren’t included on an electronic waiting list.
Until veterans are added to the waiting list, the report said, “the reported wait time for these veterans has not started.”
“Most importantly, these veterans were and continue to be at risk of being forgotten or lost in (the Phoenix Health Care System’s) convoluted scheduling process,” the report said.
Maffei said it was “no longer possible for Secretary Shinseki to lead the VA out of this crisis” given the reports of “systemic mismanagement, falsified data, and ultimately the deaths of veterans who were waiting for health care.”
Hanna described the problems at the VA as “a failure of leadership and accountability” that has “hurt our veterans in appalling ways.”
“It is unacceptable,” Hanna said. “Our nation and its heroes would be best served by new leadership at the top of the VA. Clearly this problem goes beyond personnel, and I will continue to support aggressive legislative reforms and oversight to ensure that the VA has all the resources necessary to give our veterans the care they have so dearly earned.”
Reed also called for “the immediate termination of the director of the Phoenix VA, Sharon Helman.”
“It’s unfathomable that her penalty is paid leave,” he said. “The attorney general should begin an investigation immediately to determine if she, or others, are guilty of criminal negligence.”
Two members of the New York delegation — Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gibson — have said they favor allowing more veterans to use local health facilities not operated by the VA.
The agency allows that only for veterans who live more than a two-hour drive from a VA hospital or clinic, according to Gibson, a retired Army colonel who serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
“If there’s an expertise in the local community, they should be giving more exceptions,” Gibson said in an interview last week. “I don’t think this current model, at the end of the day, is going to work.”