What to Expect at Thursday’s Senate Hearing on VA Deaths

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Evan Vucci/AP

Perhaps the hottest of Washington’s hot seats on Thursday will be in the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s hearing room, where an embattled Cabinet secretary will respond for the first time in detail to charges of fatal mismanagement at veterans hospitals.

Though Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has titled the hearing “The State of VA Health Care,” onlookers nationwide will be aware of the calls for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign following allegations that patients seeking treatment died while their names were on secret waiting lists at a Phoenix, Ariz., facility, among other locations.

Much of the drama is political. Calls for Shinseki’s head have been more vocal from people who lean right, and the various veterans organizations have divided over whether the evidence presented thus far should force the retired general from the Veterans Affairs Department leadership. Shinseki in 2003 was eased out as Army chief of staff for questioning planning for the Iraq war.

The Thursday morning hearing is not likely to be a lynching. Sanders, citing a recent survey of veterans that ranked VA hospitals among the best, said it “will focus on what the VA health care system does well and how it can improve care for veterans.”

Much of the fact-finding about fatalities and delayed care is currently in the hands of Veterans Affairs’ own watchdog. “I take these allegations very seriously,” Sanders said. “I expect the inspector general will conduct the investigation thoroughly and provide this committee with an objective analysis of these allegations.”

But House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has been far harsher. On May 8, his committee voted to subpoena emails and other documents from Shinseki. And this Tuesday, he wrote to President Obama requesting a bipartisan commission to study VA medical care access.

“Judging by the throngs of veterans, families and whistleblowers who keep courageously stepping forward, VA’s delays in care problem is growing in size and scope by the day,” Miller said. “For nearly a year, we have been pleading with top Department of Veterans Affairs leaders and the president to take immediate steps to stop the growing pattern of preventable veteran deaths and hold accountable any and all VA employees who have allowed patients to slip through the cracks. In response, we’ve received disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from VA.”

Whistleblowers have, and will likely continue, to play a role as details emerge. The tales of delays, 40 perhaps unnecessary deaths and alleged secret waiting lists in Phoenix -- announced in late April by Miller -- were first publicized in a CNN interview with Dr. Samuel Foote, now retired after 25 years in VA clinical work. Foote had also contacted the VA inspector general. The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight just before Shinseki’s Thursday appearance is joining with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in a press conference on how to protect whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing at the VA.

The IAVA, while polling its members, has stressed that leadership is not the only factor in the VA “crisis.” Shinseki also needs enhanced authority to fire underperforming employees, IAVA leader Paul Rieckhoff said in a May 5 statement.

More widely publicized was the May 6 call from American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger for the resignations of Shinseki, Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey. "The existing leadership has exhibited a pattern of bureaucratic incompetence and failed leadership that has been amplified in recent weeks," Dellinger said at the legion’s Indianapolis headquarters. The legion’s demand was echoed by Pete Hegseth, CEO of the Concerned Veterans of America.

But Veterans for Foreign Wars did not demand that Shinseki go. “It is paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to reestablish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office,” said VFW National Commander William Thien.

Similarly, AMVETS National Executive Director Stewart Hickey said, “Removing Secretary Shinseki will not solve the problems. He needs to come forward and restore the public’s confidence in the VA, as well as the VA’s Health System and his own credibility. His leadership [within the VA] and the actions being taken to resolve issues are mostly unseen by the public. He needs the tools to effectively lead, manage and hold his people accountable. The public needs to see this progress.”

A sign of the situation’s political salience came soon after the story broke in an April 24 essay on the conservative RedState.com site by diarist Moe Lane. “How many veterans will have to die of neglect before Eric Shinseki resigns?” he asked. Invoking the familiar phrase “A fish rots from the head down,” Lane called the “disaster” Shinseki’s responsibility but acknowledged that his resignation is unlikely. “No, I don’t expect honorable activity from an Obama Cabinet appointee, either, so the next alternative strategy would be to get him forced out. Only, he’s one of the antiwar movement’s old darlings, so the odds of that happening are, as they say, nil.”

Shinseki himself is standing pat. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," he told The Wall Street Journal on May 6. "I signed on to make some changes. I have work to do."

The White House backs him. Spokesman Josh Earnest on May 8 told reporters covering Obama’s fundraising trip to Los Angeles that “the president continues to have complete confidence in Secretary Shinseki. I’d point out the secretary himself is somebody who has bravely served this country and he’s a West Point graduate and somebody who is obviously also a veteran. Secretary Shinseki is hard at work and shares the president’s passion and commitment for making sure that we live up to the commitments that have been made by this country to our veterans.”

What the secretary has done to handle the crisis is step up his press appearances and implement face-to-face audits at VA medical centers across the country. As for Phoenix, “We take these allegations very seriously,” Shinseki said on May 1. “Based on the request of the independent VA Office of Inspector General, in view of the gravity of the allegations and in the interest of the inspector general’s ability to conduct a thorough and timely review of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, I have directed that PVAHCS Director Sharon Helman, PVAHCS Associate Director Lance Robinson, and a third PVAHCS employee be placed on administrative leave until further notice.”

The VA said it is reviewing Miller’s subpoena and will respond.

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