Politics

05.30.14

VA Scandal: How a General Lost Command

On Friday, VA chief Eric Shinseki finally publicly took charge of the scandal engulfing his agency. Three weeks ago, it might have been a campaign plan—instead of a valediction.

In the closing remarks of a speech made in his final hours as VA Secretary, Eric Shinseki, the former four-star general, finally sounded like an officer in command. He took responsibility for “indefensible” corruption inside the VA, fired leaders he believed were behind it, and gave orders to triage the problem. Hours later, President Obama announced he had accepted Shinseki’s resignation and appointed a new acting secretary to head the VA.

If Shinseki had given the same speech three weeks ago, it might have been a campaign plan instead of a valediction. But the honest accounting came too late, and only after multiple reports in the press created a national scandal that implicated the White House. By the time Shinseki faced up to the VA’s problems, the ball had already rolled past him and he couldn’t get ahead of the political story or the actual events.

That’s a shame, for veterans most of all. The VA’s problems didn’t start with Shinseki and they won’t be solved by his resignation—in fact, they may get worse. The secret waiting lists discovered in VA hospitals exploited a lack of oversight that made cheating easy and profitable. But beneath them there are underlying structural issues that will be even harder to fix. 

As I wrote last week, it didn’t have to be this way. The VA didn’t learn about treatment delays and falsified schedules when the national press picked up the story last month. This is a problem the VA has known about for years. The same “scheduling schemes” that placed 1,700 veterans on secret waiting lists in Phoenix have been extensively documented since 2005 and no one, including Shinseki, yet explained why it took so long to act.

As the calls for his resignation mounted, “embattled” became a go-to phrase to describe Shinseki. But that’s an odd term to apply to a decorated combat veteran who lost part of his foot in Vietnam.

Though I have reported on corruption across the VA system and criticized Shinseki’s inaction and bureaucratic dodges, I get no satisfaction from seeing him leave this way. On a number of veteran’s issues, like homelessness and unemployment, he’s presided over real improvements.

As the calls for his resignation mounted, “embattled” became a go-to phrase to describe Shinseki. But that’s an odd term to apply to a decorated combat veteran who lost part of his foot in Vietnam. Shinseki is undoubtedly an honorable man, who sought to serve veterans after his 30 years of Army service. On some counts, he did very well. But the general’s aversion to publicity, which once seemed like a sign of dignity, became a way for the VA to evade it’s own accounting.

Replacing Shinseki was necessary, the president said, to move this past a political spectacle and put the focus back on providing veterans with medical care. But, even if the president’s logic holds, fixing the VA’s problems will require a sustained effort that lasts long after the politics of the moment give way to tomorrow’s priorities.

There are serious cracks in the VA’s foundations—inadequate medical staffing for an expanding veteran population chief among them—that will widen and allow more veterans to fall through the longer they go unfixed.

As hard as those structural reforms will be, changing the culture may be even harder.

For years now, deceit has been an institutional norm in facilities across the VA. Re-emphasizing a basic value like honesty won’t be easy in a massive bureaucracy but it needs to start now.

Keeping an organization as large as the VA honest isn’t easy, but it’s one of the leadership few essentials jobs. One thing that has become clear in the past month is how cut-off the VA’s Washington offices were from the ground truth in regional facilities. The fact that hospitals all over the country were able to pass off wildly inaccurate numbers without the VA headquarters catching on suggests not only a basic failure in the oversight process, but a broken relationship between top leaders and subordinates. Starting now, the VA needs to come up with accurate methods to measure conditions at local facilities that don’t rely on human reporting so leaders can independently verify that standards are being met.

Shinseki’s honorable service, which began long before the VA and includes his accomplishments there, ought to be part of his legacy. But the truth has rights and Shinseki’s personal honor can’t excuse the failures that occurred on his watch. Shinseki has a lot to be proud of, but right now it’s the veterans in Phoenix and Central Texas who need advocates, not the retired general.