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Milbank: Time for Shinseki to go
First Published May 18 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 18 2014 01:01 am

WASHINGTON — Eric Shinseki served his country honorably as a twice-wounded officer in Vietnam, as Army chief of staff, and finally as President Obama’s secretary of veterans affairs.

But his maddeningly passive response to the scandal roiling his agency suggests that the best way Shinseki can serve now is to step aside.

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Reports have documented the deaths of about 40 veterans in Phoenix waiting for VA appointments — the latest evidence of widespread use of bookkeeping tricks at the agency to make it appear that veterans are not waiting as long for care as they really are. The abuses have been documented over several years by whistle-blowers and leaked memoranda, and confirmed by a host of government investigators.

That’s bad enough. Worse was Shinseki’s response when he finally appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to answer questions about the scandal. He refused to acknowledge any systemic problem, and declined to commit to do much of anything, insisting on waiting for the results of yet another investigation.

"If any allegations are true," Shinseki told the Senate veterans affairs committee, "they’re completely unacceptable to me."

"If any are substantiated by the inspector general," he said, "we will act."

If?

Is there not already evidence of VA appointment schedulers cooking the books?

"I’m not aware other than a number of isolated cases where there is evidence of that," Shinseki told the senators.

How about the September 2013 letter to President Obama from the U.S. Office of Special Counsel describing abuses that had been documented by the Office of Medical Inspector?


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"I can’t say that I remember it."

And is he not aware of the April 2010 memo by the deputy undersecretary for health at the VA describing "gaming strategies" being used at VA facilities for medical appointments?

"I was not. I am not."

Would he change his management team, given the evidence of systemic failures over years?

"I don’t want to get ahead of myself."

Is he concerned about a VA culture of circumventing rules?

"I’m sure someplace in a large organization, you’re always going to have something like that."

Shinseki’s denial and sluggish response to an obvious problem (his department tarried eight days before complying with a House committee’s request to preserve documents for review) is reminiscent of the whitewash of the neglect of wounded troops at Walter Reed. This isn’t some phony, Republican-hyped allegation aimed at embarrassing the White House and inflicting political damage; this looks to be a serious and long-standing problem, where official wrongdoing has led to needless deaths.

The Government Accountability Office and others have been warning for a few years of problems with the waiting lists at VA facilities across the country. After years of VA failure to respond, a CNN report last month that at least 40 died in Phoenix waiting for treatment prompted the American Legion and some lawmakers to call for Shinseki’s resignation.

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