So, what’s the latest in the VA scandal? According to Richard Oppel at the New York Times, it’s the fact that all of the scandals that were suddenly revealed this spring, and that were received by senior leaders in the department and beyond as “new revelations” and “surprises,” were actually known to them months, even years ago.
Failed and fired VA Secretary Rick Shinseki, who claimed ignorance when the scandal broke this year, knew the details as far back as 2009, but personally stalled any remedial action.
Long before revelations in the spring that the Veterans Affairs hospital in Phoenix had manipulated waiting lists to hide that veterans were facing long delays to see doctors, senior department officials in Washington had been made aware of serious problems at the hospital, according to filings before a federal administrative board.
The documents in the case of the Phoenix hospital director Sharon Helman, who had been contesting her Nov. 24 firing, provided new details of how much officials knew about the medical center, including patient backlogs, shortages of medical personnel and clinic space, and long waiting lists.
The filings included the sworn statement of Susan Bowers, the executive in charge of dozens of hospitals and clinics from West Texas to Arizona, that she had warned her superiors in Washington that if any V.A. medical center was going to “implode,” it would be Phoenix.
Ms. Bowers, who retired one month ahead of schedule in May as the scandal emerged, said that before Ms. Helman became the head of the Phoenix facility in 2012, an audit showed the hospital was out of compliance with a directive requiring patients to be placed on an official electronic waiting list. There was, in fact, no such active list for primary-care patients in Phoenix, even though a previous hospital director had certified compliance, she said.
Ms. Bowers said that when she submitted a report stating that the Phoenix hospital was out of compliance, she was pressured by other officials to say that it was compliant.
She also said that beginning in 2009, she briefed Eric K. Shinseki, then the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, and other top officials several times a year about the patient backlog and other problems in Phoenix. She said that projects she pushed — like improving the scheduling system or adding clinic space in Phoenix so more patients could be seen — were defunded or delayed because, she was told, there was no money, or no legal mechanism to lease space.
In the irony of ironies, the new revelations come from a lawsuit that may force the VA to un-fire the one person besides Shinseki fired for wrongdoing in the case that saw thousands of veterans neglected with somewhere between 40 and a couple hundred dying. Sharon Helman’s suit has pried loose documents that establish beyond doubt that not only Helman, but former Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel, and other officials, “including a deputy under secretary for health and the associate director for scheduling and access,” perjured themselves to Congress and/or lied to investigators. Shinseki, lawyered-up and sensitive to a perjury trap, claimed he could not remember any of his briefings, or any allegations, or much of anything. A Profile in Courage, not.
This week, a federal administrative judge, Stephen C. Mish, found that it was “more likely than not that at least some senior agency leaders were aware, or should have been, of nationwide problems getting veterans scheduled for timely appointments” and that the Phoenix hospital, “as a part of the nationwide system also had those problems.”
One crucial question remains: Why did senior officials not do more to fix the underlying problem, which was a shortage of doctors and other clinicians while demand for care was soaring? After the appointment of a new secretary this summer, the department abruptly disclosed that it was short 28,000 doctors, nurses and other staff and that some places, including Phoenix, acutely lacked clinic space. It has not been said whether these shortfalls were previously discussed at high levels inside the department or the Obama administration.
Judge Mish’s ruling suggests Ms. Helman was scapegoated, her lawyers say.
Sure. They’re all just picking on the poor multi-millionaire bureaucrat. You see, while there’s a mountain of evidence that she was corrupt, taking gifts from contractors, and that she was indifferent to the point of depravity towards the veterans in the system, even while feathering her own nest, the fact that everyone upstream from her was just as bad means that she should be un-fired and set back on her gravy train, along with her fellow corrupt payroll patriots.
Basically, it’s the tu quoque logical fallacy, just as false in a legal brief as when your kid tells you his brother did it too.
Her lawyers say they believe the department moved to fire her only after federal criminal investigators discovered emails between Ms. Helman and the consultant and turned them over to the V.A.
Because it’s not fair for criminal investigators to find criminal activity. Why, it’s a Beltway standard to ignore that stuff.
The documents are not the first indication that senior officials knew of the Phoenix problems. In 2008, the inspector general found that it was “an accepted past practice” there to alter appointments to avoid waits over 30 days.
Two years later, a deputy under secretary warned regional directors in a memo to eliminate improper practices being used to “improve scores on assorted access measures.” In a telephone interview after the judge’s ruling in the case, Ms. Bowers said that 2010 memo was written after she told the official of scheduling problems in Phoenix.
Hey, who are you going to believe, somebody’s hired-gun no-soul Beltway lawyer, or his or her lying memo from the files?
And what about Shinseki, who now “don’t ‘member nothin’, nohow”?
When she briefed Mr. Shinseki about problems, she added, he would say, “There’s a process, and we need to follow through on the process.”
It would have been easy to say, “These are our veterans suffering, including ones that were under my command, and we need to do the right thing.” But he didn’t say anything like that — not that time, or any time.
For some general officers, loyalty is the obedience and obeisance owed up the chain by those below, and to ask for reciprocation is to flout their expectation of your obedience. Was Rick Shinseki one of those general officers?
We leave that as an exercise for the reader.