The apologies Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki gave Friday to a veterans group for the growing VA scandal seemed heartfelt. But it was Shinsekis resignation, given later that day, that was needed.
The four-star general had not only become a distraction to fixing the troubled agency, as President Obama noted in accepting the resignation, but Shinseki did not project the strength needed to push through deep reforms and effect lasting change.
But lawmakers who urged his ouster should refrain from running a victory lap. Shinsekis leaving doesnt solve the problems at the VA. James Nicholson, President George W. Bushs VA secretary, resigned under criticism in 2007 for similar waiting list problems. Back then, incensed lawmakers received a report documenting widespread abuses. Those abuses are echoed in the VA inspector generals report detailed this week revelations that dissolved the remnants of congressional support Shinseki had.
Shinseki himself acknowledged the impact of that report, telling the National Coalition of Homeless Veterans that the problems it outlined were totally unacceptable and a breach of trust that he found indefensible. He announced steps to respond, including ousting senior officials at the troubled Phoenix health care facility where the allegations were first publicly revealed.
But Shinsekis responses Friday and earlier were inadequate. The VA has a numbers problem that cant be solved simply by changing the person whos at the top of the leadership ladder.
Congress has underfunded the VA even as the number of veterans seeking care swelled to more than 8 million a year. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars helped boost the patient load, as did Obama administration changes making it easier for veterans to file claims for illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Additionally, the VA is reportedly a technological laggard, operating with nearly 40 percent of its claims files still in paper form. VA rules are also cumbersome. It takes two years to train employees to handle claims.
It isnt really difficult to see why some would try to game the system. Whats hard to fathom is that officials did not anticipate such attempts. They should have built in rigorous oversight to ensure the goals were truthfully met or acknowledge the resource restraints that prevented it.
Not providing that rigorous oversight was Shinsekis failing.
Now, with Shinseki out, Congress and the president have an opportunity and an obligation to tackle the real and systemic problems dogging the VA. Veterans deserve to get the help they need in a timely fashion.
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