When retired Gen. Eric Shinseki took the helm of the Department of Veterans Affairs six years ago, he came into the job as a hero – a decorated and wounded veteran himself with a reputation for speaking truth to power.
On Thursday, he came before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee to answer to lawmakers who were less inclined to sing his praises than they had been when they unanimously confirmed him for the post. The opening statements from senators asking when heads would roll ran for nearly an hour.
“Today will be a little contentious,” Sen. Mark Begich (D) of Alaska warned Secretary Shinseki. “No doubt about it.”
The serious charge that inspired the hearing is an allegation of “cooking the books” against a Phoenix VA hospital that, a whistleblower alleges, led to wait times that may have contributed to the deaths of dozens of patients seeking cancer treatment. Similar charges have since cropped up against VA hospitals in a handful of other states.
For this, the American Legion, along with several Republican lawmakers, has called on Shinseki to step down – the first time since 1978 that the veterans’ organization has asked for the resignation of a public official.
But Shinseki does not appear ready to fall on his sword just yet. The allegations, if true, make him “mad as hell,” he said, adding that he “could use stronger language here, but, in deference to the committee, I won’t.” It was an emotionally raw moment for the secretary, who has never been accused of having an overly ebullient speaking style.
When asked whether he plans to resign, Shinseki noted that he served at the pleasure of the president, but made it clear that he feels there is much left for him to do. “I came here to make things better for veterans,” he said. “This is not my job – I’m here to accomplish a mission that I think they critically deserve and need.”
While few lawmakers found it politically pragmatic to rush to his defense, some did note that he inherited a broken system that would be tough for any official to fix in short order. One senator pointed out that the VA serves more than 10 million veterans, which is greater than the population of many states. When he came to office, one official noted that Shinseki inherited a “pre-World War II” filing system that was primarily paper-based, rather than computerized.
For his part, Shinseki said the American Customer Satisfaction Index – a benchmark for the public and private sectors – has found in independent surveys that VA customer satisfaction is “among the best in the nation – equal to or better than ratings for private-sector hospitals.”
Of the more than 300,000 employees in the VA health-care system, medical providers and appointment schedules received satisfaction scores of over 90 percent. “Despite these and other favorable statistics, we know that we can always improve,” Shinseki added.
Veterans advocacy organizations acknowledged that after veterans enter the system, they are generally treated well. “Their actual individual care is incredibly positive,” said Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, who testified before the committee in the second of three panels following Shinseki’s appearance. Shinseki stayed on through all three panels, sitting in the audience to listen to the concerns of representatives of veterans organizations who testified after his panel was adjourned.
Shinseki told lawmakers he expects that the VA's inspector general will be able to complete its investigation of the Phoenix VA hospital in less than a month and report back to Congress. “We’ll shoot for three weeks,” Shinseki said.
The highly anticipated report will no doubt be the subject of another hearing as soon as it’s delivered to lawmakers.
For now, the White House on Wednesday assigned Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors to oversee a review of the VA. Quickly on the heels of this announcement, Republic National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus called for an independent counsel, decrying an “insider-led investigation” for a scandal that “continues to grow every day.”