WASHINGTON With calls rising for the resignation of the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, the House and Senate are confronting the broadening health scandal at the department in ways that will challenge both parties to rethink the future of the medical system for veterans.
House legislation would nudge the department toward privatization by allowing any veteran who has had to wait for care for 30 days to seek it through private medical providers, at the department’s expense. The Senate is preparing legislation that would fund as many as 27 new health care facilities within the VA system to address the backlog of care at a cost of billions of dollars.
With shockingly long wait times at some facilities eliciting bipartisan condemnation, the next steps from Congress will hold significant ramifications for veterans’ health care – and government-run health care broadly.
“Certainly we ought to address the issue of personnel who made mistakes and falsified records, but that’s not going to solve the problems of veterans who’ve had to wait for so long,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said. “We have to look at the underlying problems.”
The scandal was amplified Wednesday with the release of a report by the department’s inspector general that found wide-ranging and “systemic” abuses of its waiting lists to mask the problems of long wait times for care. The investigation’s preliminary report found that 1,700 veterans at the agency’s medical facility in Phoenix were left off the official waiting list and that wait times were systematically understated.
Senate re-election issue
Six Democratic senators, all campaigning for election this year, have called for Shinseki’s resignation: Mark Udall of Colorado, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, John Walsh of Montana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Al Franken of Minnesota and Mark Warner of Virginia. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., added his voice to the growing chorus. He and Walsh are the Senate’s only combat veterans.
“The systemic problems at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are so entrenched that they require new leadership to be fixed,” Udall said. “Secretary Shinseki must step down.”
On Thursday afternoon, the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on disability assistance will hold a hearing on the agency’s performance transitioning service members to civilian life, a usually dry affair likely to be consumed with attention over the issue of wait times at veterans health care centers.
How to fix the problem, however, is a broader political issue. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio made that point Thursday morning when he again declined to call for Shinseki’s resignation.
“The question I ask myself is, ‘Is him resigning going to get us to the bottom of the problem? Is it going to help us find out what’s really going on?' And the answer I keep getting is no,” Boehner said. “This is more than just about phony waiting lists. This is also about the quality of care we provide for our veterans.”
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