The spreading allegations of shoddy and deceitful management at the nation's veterans hospitals are hitting closer to home. There are reports of secret waiting lists for patients at a VA hospital in Gainesville, and the record keeping is such a mess at a VA regional office in St. Petersburg it's questionable whether it keeps any priority care list at all, public or private. The Obama administration has a mess to clean up that has been years in the making, and it needs to move quickly to ensure the nation's veterans are receiving the prompt medical care they deserve.
The reaction from Washington is not encouraging. The administration's high-profile firing of a senior administrator who had already announced his retirement is more about public relations than addressing the serious problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The announcement Friday came one day after Secretary Eric Shinseki's underwhelming performance before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. The agency is reeling after reports that dozens of veterans may have died while awaiting care at VA health care facilities. Whistle-blowers have reported that VA staff maintained secret waiting lists at some facilities to hide routine delays in receiving an appointment. Congress is examining whether the practice was widespread, and some members of Congress and veterans' groups are demanding that Shinseki be replaced.
Shinseki says he takes the allegations seriously, and Obama has appointed a top aide to monitor the department. Obama is "madder than hell" about the reports, his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, said Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation, adding that the president had assigned additional personnel to assess whether the problems require "wholesale reform." While none of the cases made public involve Tampa Bay's two VA hospitals, Sen. Marco Rubio asked Shinseki last week to respond to reports that secret lists were kept at the VA hospital in Gainesville.
The concerns over timely access to care come as a new report says lost and misfiled records were a "major issue" at the VA's regional office in Pinellas County. A VA inspector general's report released last week painted chaos at an agency branch office in St. Petersburg: Records were not stamped appropriately in the mail room, files were jammed with records and a tracking log for cases was accidentally lost. Sorting records took weeks, and officials had to "rebuild" more than two dozen claims because the original documents could not be found.
The common denominator in all of these cases is a bureaucracy that cannot keep pace with the volume of demands for service. Yet VA leaders have turned a blind eye to systemic shortcomings throughout the whole operation. Now the president is mad and the secretary is shocked.
The public deserves a frank accounting of the scope of this mess, and the administration must propose a fix that ensures veterans have timely access to health care and other benefits they have earned. For Shinseki, time is short and the clock is ticking.