Keith Lane / MCT

Daniel Dellinger, left, national commander of the American Legion, talks with veteran Barry Coates of Rock Hill, S.C., before a congressional hearing April 9 on preventable deaths and subpar treatment at Veterans Affairs medical centers.

Editorial: New leadership needed at Veterans Affairs

Published: Tuesday, May. 6, 2014 - 12:00 am

Lengthy delays suffered by needy veterans to receive their disability benefits were bad enough. Now it’s apparent that vets have died waiting for screening and treatment by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The problems have reached the point that the American Legion was right to call Monday for the resignations of three top VA leaders – Secretary Eric Shinseki, Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel and Undersecretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.

“Patient deaths are tragic, and preventable patient deaths are unacceptable,” said Daniel Dellinger, Legion national commander. “But the failure to disclose safety information, or worse, to cover up mistakes, is unforgivable.”

It is the first time in more than 30 years that the 2.4 million-member American Legion has called for public officials to step down. Losing the support of one of the nation’s most venerable and largest veterans groups could make it difficult for Shinseki to be effective.

A few members of Congress also said Shinseki should step down, but the White House said President Barack Obama still has confidence in him. “Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow veterans, and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead,” a VA spokesman said.

The VA also noted that the largest combat vets organization, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, disagreed with the Legion. Instead, it urged more congressional oversight and strong action by Shinseki, who has been VA secretary since January 2009. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said there is a “crisis of confidence,” but wants to hear from its members before addressing Shinseki’s future.

Shinseki and other senior leaders have had more than enough time and opportunity to get things right. The agency has a litany of shortcomings serving the growing numbers of veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is not only bureaucratic incompetence, but a failure of leadership that the VA has not made more progress.

As The Bee’s editorial board has stated, it’s a national disgrace how long veterans have waited on their disability claims. One of the worst-performing regional offices has been the one in Oakland, which serves veterans throughout the Sacramento region and Central Valley. While there has been noticeable improvement lately in the backlog, it took too long.

The VA has also lagged in providing mental health treatment, including therapy for post-traumatic stress. An estimated 22 veterans are taking their lives every day. Suicide prevention is now a priority, but it took too long.

These latest disclosures are the most troubling of all. The VA acknowledged last month that the deaths of 23 veterans and further health problems of 53 others across the country may be linked to delayed cancer screenings or treatment. Then CNN reported whistleblowers’ allegations that 40 veterans died due to treatment delays at a VA hospital in Phoenix – and that there was a secret waiting list to hide the delays.

The VA already was under scrutiny for preventable deaths. In his latest exposé, Aaron Glantz of the Center for Investigative Reporting documented last month that the VA has paid out more than $200 million in wrongful death payments since 2001, including $500,000 at the Sacramento VA Medical Center.

Top VA officials may not be personally responsible for the entire mess, but the buck stops with them. If accountability means anything in the Obama administration, the president must clean house.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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