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A.B. Stoddard: Obama, replace Shinseki

Though President Obama has earned a reputation for his too-little, too-late responses to crises, he has a chance to promptly choose new leadership for the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs and make true on all the promises he has made to veterans and their families in 2008 and every year since.

As the hours pass and more Democrats and longstanding Republican defenders of Gen. Eric Shinseki continue calling for him to step down as VA secretary, one can hope the Obama administration is using its limited time wisely to find his replacement. If not, Obama and his close advisers are as delusional as Donald Sterling. 

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A devastating interim report from the VA inspector general this week identified “systemic” problems throughout the national system and found that average waiting times for patients at VA healthcare facilities, though reported as only 24 days, were actually 115 days. The report also found that roughly 1,700 patients were ultimately left out of the system entirely due to secretive, fraudulent waiting lists.

Considering that the IG report is only an interim update, and its author, acting Inspector General Richard J. Griffin, revealed his agency is already coordinating with the Department of Justice, there is significant possibility that investigators will uncover criminal wrongdoing throughout many of the 42 facilities under examination when the final report is concluded in August.

Democrats, now joining Republicans in rushing to the microphones to call for Shinseki’s ouster, cannot possibly defend the secretary in light of such findings in a tough election year. Yet the White House has tried remaining vague amid the firestorm. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the president found the report “extremely troubling” and made assurances that Shinseki would “fully and aggressively” implement the recommendations of the IG report. That sounds great, but since 2005 there have been 18 IG reports documenting scheduling problems and long delays that had an adverse effect on the health of veterans using those facilities, and things have only deteriorated dramatically.

Shinseki has, thus far, enjoyed a reservoir of good will, even among the VA’s strongest supporters in Congress. But after the IG’s initial findings this week, the idea of waiting until August to draw a final conclusion appears irresponsible. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is correct: firing Shinseki won’t fix the problem, and it tempting to solely blame Obama. But just because terminating Shinseki won’t repair the VA doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be fired. 

Despite being a decorated war hero and a good and decent man, Shinseki clearly cannot effectively manage the VA, because he hasn’t. No one believes he is the man to turn around a toxic bureaucracy that has put so many lives at risk and perhaps caused at least 40 deaths thus far.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was one such supporter of Shinseki — until he read the preliminary report. “It is alarming that Secretary Shinseki either wasn’t aware of these systemic problems, or wasn’t forthcoming in his communications with Congress about them. Either way, it is clear to me that new leadership is needed at the VA,” McCain said in a statement asking Obama to fire the secretary if he didn’t offer his resignation.

Though the uproar has joined both parties in outrage, veterans have only had a small group of vocal champions over the years continuously calling for more oversight and improvements in patient care at the VA. It seems Shinseki wasn’t one of them, as he ignored repeated questions, complaints and admonishments. House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) has it right: Shinseki is a good man who has served honorably. But, said Miller, Shinseki has failed to fix the broken VA system despite repeated and frequent warnings. “What’s worse, to this day, Shinseki — in both word and deed — appears oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department.”

President Obama has not and cannot disagree with that description of his VA secretary. He will need a new secretary soon. 

 

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.

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