Utah Rep. Chris Stewart took no joy Friday in the resignation-under-pressure of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. But the former U.S. Air Force rescue helicopter and bomber pilot reaches back to his own military service for an explanation of why it had to happen.
“If we had a problem in the squadron or crashed a jet, you’d just know the squadron commander was going to get fired,” the first-term Republican said. “You’ve got to start fresh.”
The jet crashed earlier this week when an inspector general’s report confirmed widespread mismanagement and abuse in the V.A.’s medical system — a systemic failure that had first surfaced in Phoenix, where veterans were placed on secret waiting lists to disguise their 115-day average waits for care.
Before meeting Friday with President Barack Obama and tendering his resignation, Shinseki appeared before a veterans group and promised to repair a “breach in integrity,” apologized for the widespread problems and said he had begun cleaning house in Phoenix.
By then it was too late. News reports noted that, by late Thursday, more than 100 lawmakers — including many Democrats — said the retired four-star Army general (who gained national prominence when he contradicted then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003 by saying an invasion of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops ) had to go.
Longtime veterans advocate Terry Schow, former head of Utah’s veterans affairs, said it was a sad day and one he hoped could have been prevented. He saw keeping Shinseki on the job as the best way to get quick results in fixing the V.A.’s problems.
Who better, he asked, to crack the whip than a former general angered at being misled and betrayed by his subordinates?
“I don’t care if you put Albert Einstein in there, it’s going to take them some time to figure it out,” Schow said, estimating six months to a year just for a new director to get up to speed.
“I see it as a kind of piling-on mentality,” Schow said of the pressure for his ouster. “A good man has been taken out and it almost becomes hyper-partisan.”
Resignation right call • Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz had publicly called Thursday for Shinseki’s resignation — becoming the only member of Utah’s delegation to do so. But all six members agreed Friday that his exit was the only way forward.
“He had a great career in the military — was a decorated soldier,” said Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “I hate to see it end this way but he clearly did not fix the problems and may not have been totally forthcoming as he should have been.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, expressed admiration and appreciation for Shinseki, who, during four decades in the Army, including being wounded in combat in Vietnam, gave “heroic service to our country.”
But Hatch said the job at the V.A. just wasn’t getting done.
“What happened at some V.A. facilities across the country is reprehensible and unacceptable,” Hatch said. “Our nation’s veterans are heroes, and they deserve to be treated as such.”
Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah’s delegation, also praised Shinseki for serving “honorably” in the military and making improvements during his five years in the V.A. But he added his resignation was “appropriate, given the egregious wrongdoings within the department … [because] leadership begins at the top.”
Chaffetz expressed relief in Shinseki’s departure but said the president should have handled it differently.
“He should have been fired,” Chaffetz said. “Congress has been writing this story [about mismanagement in the VA] for years, but the inspector general’s report, I think, pushed it over the edge. … That was the final blow.”
He said the administration now needs to live up to its promises of reform — and get to it quickly. At the same time, Chaffetz said, attention needs to be paid to possible criminal wrongdoing in the scandal uncovered.
“The FBI should be involved and look into people manipulating those records. If you have people manipulating those [patient waiting list] records in order to get raises and bonuses, I think that’s something you should go to jail for.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, echoed other lawmakers in expressing the view that Shinseki’s resignation by itself doesn’t resolve the problems and “the chore of fixing them ultimately falls on the president.”
Utah’s V.A. • Apparently in Utah, leaders agree, an estimated 165,000 veterans do have good access to an efficient medical-care system without the long delays reported elsewhere. Some 34,000 used medical-care services last year.
“Right now veterans in Utah are saying they are well served,” said Gary Harter, director of the state Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.
Bishop concurred that “it is clearly one of the better systems that we have in Utah. … With a few hiccups along the way, the V.A. system in Salt Lake has been ranked as one of the more effective.”
Schow agrees, saying the wait time for patient care in the system here is close to the agency’s 15-day goal. That, he adds, is largely due to the leadership of Steve Young, director of the V.A. Salt Lake City Health Care System.
“He’s known as a fixer,” Schow said — noting that he has been temporarily assigned in Montana and Illinois when there were problems with the V.A. systems there.
And now he has been assigned temporarily to oversee V.A. health care at the eye of the storm: Phoenix.
“I worry,” said Schow, “that they’re going to promote him and that would mean we would lose him.”
In the broader picture, the administration and lawmakers need to put politics aside and work together to repair the national V.A. system, he said.
“Congress needs to be a part of this fix rather than just throwing rocks,” Schow said. “They might have to throw a bunch of money at this.”
Chaffetz maintains a lack of attention and leadership — not money — has caused the trouble.
“It was a problem six or seven years ago, but it never got fixed,” he said. “It wasn’t for a lack of funding; it just never got done.”