Sunday, June 01, 2014

Congress and Veterans


Dona: We’re talking Congress and veterans with Ruth, Wally, Kat, Ava and C.I.  Last week was big news for veterans.  Chief among them the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

Wally: Something we have repeatedly called for.

Dona: Correct.  It was about two years ago we called for it in one of these.  And now it’s happened.  Surprising?

Wally: Not really.  Last Sunday, it was up in the air if this was even possible.  However, things changed quickly last week as more Democrats began calling for Shinseki to step down – this time elected Democrats not Democrats running for office.  On one day, you had five sitting US senators, all Democrats, call for Shinseki to resign.  This came with a White House official leaking to CNN that Shinseki wasn’t safe.
Ruth: And then came  the release of the Inspector General’s interim report on the Phoenix VA Medical Center and documenting the existence of secret lists.

Dona: Explain that for those who missed it.

Ruth: VA Secretary Shinseki set the 14-day standard.  Veterans needing medical attention would call in for an appointment and see a doctor within 14 days.  The Phoenix VA was keeping two sets of lists.  The official list documented that the 14-day standard was being met.  The other list documented the reality of veterans waiting weeks and months for appointments.  These lists are said to have been prevalent throughout the VA and currently over 40 centers are being investigated.  Whistle-blowers came forward and I think you can make the point that CNN’s reporting has long documented the secret lists were in place.  But with the Inspector General issuing the report and confirming it, that took the issue to another level.

Dona: Was anyone surprised that Shinseki resigned?

Kat: I’m sure US House Rep. Corinne Brown flipped her wig but for the rest of the world, it was expected.  Shinseki was becoming a “distraction” – a term used by both Shinseki and Barack – and this scandal reflects on Barack Obama and the image got even worse as nothing was done about it.  So Shinseki had to go.  On Friday?  I was surprised only that it didn’t come later in the day.  But obviously if you want to make an announcement like this you will do it on Friday.  Unless it’s a Saturday Night Massacre – thank you to Ava and C.I. for getting my Watergate joke just now, they’re laughing.  But, yeah, it had to happen on a Friday.  And for the reasons that Wally and Ruth outlined, this was coming, this was going to happen.
Dona: What changes now?  Shinseki’s gone, what’s been accomplished?

Ava: Accountability.  There are people at the VA who now realize the Secretary lost his job over this.  If he can be held accountable, anyone can.  And anyone should.  In Friday’s snapshot, C.I. addressed the very big issue that everyone’s ignored: The VA has operated in a culture of secrecy.  This has been going on since 2009.  The VA has not been open, it has not provided Congress with needed information,it has ignored Congressional requests, it has lied and so much more.  Shinseki’s departure means other officials are grasping they could be held accountable as well.  It puts people on notice.

Dona: I was hoping to wait a bit on noting the hearings but Ava’s opened the door so let’s do it now.  Last week, the House Veterans Affairs Committee and Subcomittees held three hearings.  Everyone was at all three, right?

Kat: Yes.  But the Wednesday night hearing was one that Wally, Ava and I were only at for the start.  We left during it.  I think we were there for 90 minutes.  Ruth and C.I. were there for the full hearing.

Dona: Okay.  So there’s the Wednesday night hearing, the full House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.  The reporting on it is: 

Dona: Kat, big stand out?

Kat: The hearing itself.  By Friday, as the conventional wisdom was whining, “We’re all at fault!,” it was left to C.I. to note, “Uh, no.”  This hearing was about Congressional requests being ignored by the VA.  The Committee had to issue subpoenas and they are still being denied what they’re requesting.   It’s amazing how much secrecy the VA has been allowed by the administration to operate in and amazing that it’s left to C.I. to cover this while others are screaming, “It’s Congress’ fault!”

Wally: How can Congress be at fault when they are fighting to get information that they are legally entitled to?  Efforts to blame Congress actually really point the administration’s refusal to make the VA comply with the law. 

Dona: We seem eager to get into the culture of secrecy so let me bring C.I. in.  Ty printed up 32 e-mails from veterans who stressed that C.I.’s “culture of secrecy” got to the real heart of the matter.  So clearly this – this strummed a chord others have heard.  It resonated.  Ava’s laughing at my “strummed a chord” – I was trying to avoid a bromide.  So, C.I., “culture of secrecy.”

C.I.: The minute Shinseki’s resignation became public, various gasbags tried to rush out with, “We’re all to blame!”  No, we aren’t.  As Wally was saying earlier and Ava had noted before that, you can’t provide oversight if you’re not provided facts.  Congress does not serve at the pleasure of the President.  The Congress is the people’s voice.  The Legislative branch is a co-equal branch of government.  The executive branch, which the VA is part of, has not respected that.  They have refused to hand over information, they have lied and they have concealed.  The secret list is about this.  The culture of secrecy is found in the Washington state scandal where the VA was caught stripping veterans of Post-Traumatic Stress diagnoses in order to avoid giving them the benefits – money – that they needed.  There is a big mistake being made right now –

Dona: I agree and I’m stopping you for a second.  The snapshot went up so early on Friday.  Jim noted it wasn’t even five o’clock yet here, in California, when it went up.  He said, “C.I. must be trying to get ahead of it.”  Ahead of the gas baggery that was rewriting history and events.

C.I.: Yes, Jim was correct about that. That’s the big mistake where we start acting (a) like it’s everyone’s fault and (b) like it’s one event.  There have been numerous scandals under Shinseki.  The common thread is the culture of secrecy.

Dona: You note how this secrecy is encouraged.

C.I.: It really is.  You’ve got, one example, the Office of the Inspector General finding errors in VA’s Quick Start program and the VA insisting these aren’t errors by their definition.  By their definition?  The watchdog’s definition is the definition that needs to be used.  But VA is allowed to create their own definitions and terms to hide reality.  This needs to stop.  Immediately.  This is how the road you’re on ends in cooking the books and keeping secret lists.  The transparency is not there and it is not appreciated – these are cultural issues within the VA that need to be addressed immediately.  And if they are, the VA can be stronger and serve veterans.  If the cultural issue is not addressed, it will continue and the Congress will be dealing with one scandal after another as they have been since 2009.

Dona: What was striking about your report on Friday was just how many scandals there were and how, come October, there will be more problems if anyone wants to pay attention.   You talk about how none of Quick Start’s goals are going to be met.

C.I.: It’s impossible.  The IG provided the true figures Thursday afternoon in the Subcommittee hearing and this was the first Congress was hearing.  They’d heard from the VA about the progress.  The VA had lied.  To offer just one example, the number of days for a disability claim?  They’ve shaved off a few days over the last years but you’re looking at them cutting in half their current totals – doing so in five months.  This is not practical.

Dona: And no one’s reporting on it.

C.I.:  Acknowledging it doesn’t fit in with the narrative some are trying to impose.  The VA is failing.  It is failing badly.  Until the VA starts embracing a culture of transparency there will be continued scandals as they try to cover up their mistakes.

Wally, what stands out to you from the hearings?

Wally: I would just state that Dr. Thomas Lynch and Joan Mooney both agreed to support the Justice Department investigating the VA if that is what the IG said.  I think that’s important because I’ve seen too many people make these remarks and then go back on them.  So I want that out there for the record.

Dona: Okay.  Ruth?

Ruth: It would be the Thursday morning hearing that blind veterans testified in.  C.I. wrote about that as we were sitting in the hearing and I thought – I marvel over how she addressed Browsealoud.  That is what the Committee has on their website.  And the blind veterans were talking about how the site was not accessible.  This puzzled one Committee member.  C.I., reporting on this as it happens, notes that Browsealoud is geared towards dyslexics not the blind.  Like the Committee member, I would not have thought there was an issue there.  But there is an issue there.  I also thought the veterans did a very good job of explaining what they experience and noting the need for the registry of veterans who have suffered eye injuries. 

Dona: Kat, your turn.

Kat: First and foremost, Beto O’Roarke really is the hottest man in Congress.  Paul Ryan needs to pass on the crown. 

Dona: The Texas Democrat.

Kat: Yes.  I’ll go with Beto, in fact, for what stood out.  In El Paso, veterans using the local VA medical center are not being served.  They lack a full service VA and, as a result, something as basic as a prescription involves a journey that resembles the days of The Pony Express.  That needs to be addressed and dealt with.   Like Ruth, I was impressed with the blind veterans testimony.  A Democrat, I can’t think of who –

C.I.: US House Rep. Mark Tanko from California.

Kat:  Thank you.  That’s him.  He pointed out how some groups are less represented in the conversation and the blind veterans brought important issues that needed to be raised and they did so very well.  As the first panel ended, it was very clear that not all the needed issues had been touched upon and I’ll leave it at that except to note a veteran pointed that out to them as the panel was ending.

Dona:  Ava?  Oh, wait.  Corinne Brown.  The e-mails from veterans said to thank you and to thank C.I. for calling out Corinne Brown.  She has a lousy reputation with veterans.  I’m trying to wind down but, Ava, could you talk about Brown?

Ava: Sure.  She’s a lousy member of Congress.  She was a vocal defender of veterans and would talk about how bad the VA was when Bully Boy Bush was in office.  Now she spends all of her time defending the VA.  In hearing after hearing, she’s made clear that she’s an apologist for the VA – even worse so than Senator Bernie Sanders.  This year, she reached a new low when veteran ***** appeared before the House Committee and explained how poor medical service and lack of access to health care led his cancer to go undiagnosed until it reached stage-four.  The ridiculous Corinne Brown wanted to lecture a dying man on his attitude and to tell him that she had a friend who was supposed to die immediately but he’s still here.  She’s trash.  And she needs to be off the Committee.  Where would you place her?  How about the Education Committee?  Then every time she opened her mouth, we could all laugh that someone too stupid to know the English language was sitting on the Education Committee.  Veterans do not like Corinne Brown.  They don’t like her because she blames them, she attacks them and she excuses the VA. 

Dona: Thank you.  Briefly, what stands out to you from the three days of hearings?

Ava: Honestly, I guess that they took place.  That showed serious focus and effort on the part of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.  There was a hearing years ago, when Bob Filner was Chair, where C.I., Kat, Wally and I were about 15 people present because everyone wanted to leave DC for the Christmas break.  That hearing showed dedication.  These three did as well.  Especially the night hearing.  I would have loved to have stayed but I do have a young child and I did need to leave.  But even though I left, I do applaud the Committee for their stamina and determination.

Dona:  Wally, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bernie Sanders should step down or continue as Committee Chair?

Wally: Step down or be replaced.

Dona: A veteran e-mailed to say you two discussed this last week after the morning hearing Thursday.  He's from Philadelphia if that helps jog your memory.

Wally: Yeah, I know him.  He's a good guy.  He's usually at the hearings and he's one of the people we usually talk to.  Bernie Sanders has made a point to offer excuses for the VA and has refused to stand with veterans.  Prior to that he held a hearing on yoga and other topics and most veterans I've spoken to feel that when there's a wait list issue and vets are suffering, you shut up about yoga and focus on real issues.  All the vets I spoke to last week feel Sanders has betrayed them.

Dona: And Ruth, why not make the same case for Ranking Member Richard Burr?

Ruth: Senator Burr is not seen as betraying veterans or being an apologist for the VA.  He has upset the heads of some Veterans Service organizations for criticizing them.  That is not the same thing as being seen as an excuse maker for the VA.  And I agree that Senator Sanders needs to be replaced. 

Dona: C.I., what stands out to you from last week's hearings?

C.I.:  Too much.  Let me focus on the lack of common sense.  VA doctors are overworked.  One reason is they are doing all of this data entry.  US House Rep. Phil Roe addressed this.  He is also a doctor.  He said if he was attempting to do this, it would take up 50% of his time, that the VA needed to hire clerks for the doctors who would take on those tasks and it would allow the VA doctors the time to see more patients.  That’s basic, it’s common sense.  Applause for Roe for seeing the problem, identifying it and explaining how to fix it.  But that’s the kind of common sense you really wish the VA had internally but doesn’t.

Dona: Alright.  Thank you all.  This is a rush transcript.  Our e-mail address is  And finally, C.I. has noted her belief that the best person for the job of Secretary of the VA is Patrick Murphy.  Jim and I want to add our voices to that.  Murphy is an Iraq War veteran and he’s also served in Congress.  The VA is a mess and it’s going to require a lot of energy and a lot of caring to improve things.  Murphy is up for the job and has the needed skill set.  He would also see it as a duty to fix the VA.  He is the best choice for the job and I hope he is at least considered for it.

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