VA Secretary Shinseki Must Answer Key Questions from Congress

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki must answer to Congress over allegations that 40 veterans may have died while waiting for care from a Phoenix VA hospital.

Whistleblowers at the hospital claim supervisors shredded a secret waiting list that buried how long hundreds of veterans were forced to wait before getting treatment. In some cases, it was allegedly months.

Shinseki — subpoenaed along with other VA officials this week by a House Committee — is expected to appear before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday to testify about the state of the VA’s health care system.

Veterans groups and military observers say the former Army general should be upfront in addressing these key questions:

Is this an isolated incident or systemic problem?

While Phoenix is currently in the spotlight, there have been similar problems reported at other VA hospitals. Ten different VA facilities in eight states and Washington, D.C., have experienced significant delays in patient care, according to reports.

At a VA outpatient clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., for example, employees falsified wait time records as many of the 6,300 veterans who sought treatment waited months to be seen, according to a VA investigation first reported by USA Today.

The VA has been under scrutiny for a number of health-care related concerns since Shinseki took the helm in 2009, including a deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in Pittsburgh and patient safety problems in Atlanta.

Why did it take so long to condemn the alleged actions?

Shinseki waited a week to release a statement on May 1 stating that the VA was taking the allegations “very seriously.”

He told NBC News on Wednesday that he would be “angry” should the claims turn out to be true.

But Shinseki’s “lack of presence” when the scandal broke does him a disservice, said James Craig, chair of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ military and veterans affairs department.

Craig said Shinseki has helped to improve the VA in terms of benefits and healthcare. This scandal, however, will be a black eye.

“I am not among the chorus calling for the secretary’s resignation, but I am certain there are some high-level administrators that need to go,” Craig said in an email.

Shinseki has so far refused to step down, and told NBC News he is serving at the pleasure of the president. President Barack Obama continues to have full confidence in Shinseki, White House spokesman Jay Carney told MSNBC on Friday.

How can you ensure patients are getting the best care?

Shinseki has placed three Phoenix VA administrators on leave. He also vowed “swift and appropriate action” if an Inspector General's investigation backs up the whistleblowers' claims.

Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Shinseki will need to determine whether VA hospitals in America’s “Sun Belt” regions, including Phoenix, are overloaded and understaffed.

“They double their population every winter,” Davis said. “Was that a contributing factor here?”

Are whistleblowers adequately protected?

One whistleblower, Dr. Samuel Foote, only came forward publicly following his retirement after 24 years with the VA in Phoenix.

Some have questioned why he didn’t make his claims while he was working for the VA, but Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, said employees might feel intimidated and worried about retaliation.

“I have more sympathy because I know what would happen if he came forward: He’s gone,” Hegseth said. “[Shinseki] must reiterate that the VA is a system that would allow a doctor or a clerk to step forward to expose something like this without being fired.”

How do you build a culture of accountability?

Veterans groups said the VA must instill confidence that it can provide quality care in a timely manner. That would start by Shinseki answering questions on Capitol Hill and the VA complying with lawmakers’ subpoenas — turning over any document linked to the alleged secret waiting list.

Before the subpoenas, lawmakers had accused officials of “stonewalling” their requests for information.

The VA must “alleviate any doubt that there isn’t strong leadership and accountability,” said Nick McCormick, legislative associate with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We want people to go to the VA, but they deserve the best treatment as possible.”