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VA chief Shinseki to fight for career, trust in grilling before Congress

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:27 p.m.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
AFP/Getty Images
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki will be fighting for his career and veterans' confidence in his enormous agency on Thursday when he testifies before a Senate committee about veterans who died while awaiting care.

But as more reports surface of alleged schemes to mask long wait times at VA hospitals and clinics, he will have a tougher time convincing lawmakers that he can fix the VA's problems.

While President Obama has repeatedly voiced support for Shinseki, the political tide could quickly turn against the former four-star general if he fails to credibly show the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that he was unaware of any cover-ups of appointment wait times.

“He needs to do the right thing, and that's fix what's broken, own up to what he knows and get all the evidence out there,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., a committee member.

Congress' growing impatience with the VA's problems in delivering care and shrinking a huge backlog in disability claims was evident on Tuesday.

House Veterans Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked Obama to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate care access for veterans, citing “disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from VA” on the issue.

Missouri Sens. Roy Blunt, a Republican, and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, asked the VA to investigate allegations by a St. Louis VA doctor about mental health care delays.

Blunt said such cases must be investigated immediately or Congress “will see if somebody else will do it if the secretary for Veterans Affairs won't.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who chairs the Veterans Affairs Committee, said he is concerned that the VA is being “politicized” despite serving millions of veterans well.

The most prominent care delay case has been in Phoenix, where former VA physician Sam Foote said wait times of up to 21 months for appointments were covered up. He said patients' names were put on a secret list before spots opened on an official list that met the agency's shorter waiting time goals. At least 40 people died last year while waiting for care, he said.

“We have more demand for services than we can possibly supply,” Foote said in an interview, adding that the region, like other Sunbelt communities, had attracted huge numbers of military retirees.

Probes into similar schemes have been reported at VA facilities in Cheyenne; Fort Collins, Colo.; and San Antonio and Austin.

Vicky Olson said on Friday that her husband, retired Marine Michael Olson, collapsed and died in March of complications of hypertension, obesity and asthma while awaiting an appointment with a primary care doctor at a VA clinic in Phoenix.

The VA “just needs to be fixed,” and that includes a change at the top, she said.

At least six veterans died and 16 more fell ill during a Legionnaires' disease outbreak at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, prompting several federal investigations and congressional hearings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the outbreak lasted from February 2011 to November 2012, but a series of Tribune-Review investigative reports found alarmingly high levels of Legionella, the bacteria that cause the deadly form of pneumonia, in the VA's water system as far back as 2007. The Trib's investigation also found mistakes in the management of the treatment systems designed to keep Legionella out of the water at the VA hospitals in Oakland and O'Hara, a lack of urine sample testing that would have identified the disease in patients, and other systemic failures.

On Sunday, the Trib revealed discrepancies between internal VA emails and documents and what some VA officials told Congress and the public in a February 2013 hearing convened in Pittsburgh. On Monday, the newspaper reported on internal VA Pittsburgh emails that suggested officials tried to keep the outbreak there quiet. David Cord, deputy director of the VA Pittsburgh, told the agency's top public affairs official that he wanted to keep quiet about the outbreak unless specifically asked by the media, according to one of nearly 7,000 emails and documents reviewed by the Trib.

Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the scandal likely will worsen, and he is not sure whether Shinseki, who has led the agency for more than five years, is the right person for the job.

“We need strong accountability at the VA, because what's happening is that people are losing faith in the system,” Tarantino said.

Those who know him say Shinseki has faced challenges head-on throughout his 38-year military career, and his approach to the VA problems is no different.

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