The Department of Veterans Affairs should move quickly to restore public confidence in the wake of disturbing reports that patients have died because of delays in getting treatment at the nation's veterans hospitals. The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs did the right thing last week by sending a strong message to Secretary Eric Shinseki that the bureaucracy has long been immovable and that he has not shown the urgency in airing the facts that this situation demands. While the calls for President Barack Obama to fire him are premature, the coming weeks will show whether Shinseki is best suited to clean up this mess.
The House committee voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena all emails and other correspondence between top VA officials related to a waiting list at the agency's Phoenix medical center, where up to 40 patients reportedly died awaiting medical treatment. It shouldn't take a subpoena to get VA officials to be candid and open about how they do their jobs. The committee wants to know whether there was an effort by the VA to falsify its performance in treating patients in a timely manner. Earlier this month, Shinseki placed three officials at the Phoenix facility on leave, and on Thursday the VA announced it would undertake a national audit to ensure that patients had adequate access to care.
These steps are helpful, but it will take follow-through by the administration and Congress to get an accurate picture of the quality of a health care system that treats 6.5 million veterans in nearly 1,300 medical facilities. Phoenix is not the only problem; similar allegations about patient backlogs have been leveled at VA medical centers in Georgia, South Carolina and Colorado. None of the reported deaths have occurred in the Tampa Bay area.
Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller, who chairs the House committee, has not joined the calls by the American Legion and some in Congress for Shinseki to be replaced. Now's the time for action, not distraction; the focus should be on examining how the VA handled its caseload and whether records were falsified or destroyed to cover up persistent management problems.
The 85 million appointments the VA system managed last year certainly speak to the many moving parts of this operation. But as Miller, veterans groups and others have long noted, the VA is an opaque bureaucracy that moves at its own plodding pace and rarely responds except in a crisis. The late Rep. C.W. Bill Young was about the only official in this area who could make department officials jump when he called. The agency needs a culture change, and the coming weeks will demonstrate whether it also needs a change in leadership. Congress and the White House need to stay on Shinseki and insist on a full and candid accounting to these charges. Veterans deserve the care they have earned, and taxpayers deserve to have an efficient, functional health care system in place for serving those who served their country.