In the Arena

Latest Column: The VA Mess

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Eric Shinseki is a fine man, and a courageous one. He spoke truth to power at the beginning of the Iraq war. But he has not been an effective Sercretary of Veterans Affairs and it is time for him to go.

I’m sorry I didn’t post this column several days ago, when it first went online. It has caused a fair amount of controversy in the veterans’ community. There are many other details I could have added. For example, Bob Kerrey told me that when he moved from New York to Nebraska to run for the U.S. Senate, he had to  actually go to the local VA hospital several times over the course of several weeks to get his disability records transferred (he was able to get his bank accounts transferred, electronically, overnight). The hassles aren’t limited to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans; they are multifarious.

There has been some discussion, too, about whether the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should be a public advocate for the returning veterans–or just concentrate on untangling the bureaucratic mess. Ideally, I’d love to see both…and if the VA Secretary isn’t out there reminding people that the vast majority of returning veterans are not nutjobs, that they are potential leaders who will make excellent employees, some high profile figure–the President, the Vice President, George W. Bush (who sent them to war), someone–should be leading the charge.

Finally, Mike Erwin the terrific leader of Team Red, White and Blue, took me to task for conflating the VA issue with the communities of courage and excellence that groups like Team RWB, Team Rubicon, The Mission Continues and many others are developing. It’s a fair point. This generation of veterans will create their own legacy–and I’m confident it will be a great one. The VA’s job is to provide support where it can in a caring, efficient way.

Mike also pointed out the his group and the others are mostly about building flourishing communities through an alliance between veterans and engaged civilians. This is an absolutely crucial point. You can run with Team Red, White and Blue. You can do disaster relief with Team Rubicon–as 10,000 civilians did after hurricane Sandy. Here’s how you can get in touch:

http://teamrubiconusa.org/

http://teamrwb.org/

15 comments
GusFring
GusFring

Shinseki was asked at his January 2009 confirmation hearing about the problems facing VA and what were the root causes of those problems. He stated "Leadership". It was a bold direct answer which gave hope to members of congress and veterans organizations that this man with a sterling reputation after 38 years of distinguished service in the US Army where he attained the rank of Army Chief of Staff would take charge. 

It became apparent early into his tenure that this was a man molded out of the bureaucratic leadership culture of the Army which encouraged generals not to be creative and afforded them infinite resources and perks. He immediately hired dozens of former Army staffers with no health care or benefits experience to support his every move. He named as his Senior Advisor the sitting Deputy Director of the Army Museum at Ft. Belvoir.  Also a full time speech writer who travels everywhere the Secretary travels along with a handful of traveling aids and notetakers. One of those hired was John Gingrich, who became Shinseki's Chief of Staff at the VA after serving as his Strategic Communications Chief in the Army. As Joe Klein refers to in his article, Mr. Gingrich was terminated by the white house for a pattern of behavior that will be published in a yet to be released VA OIG report which focuses on Mr. Gingrich's treatment of staff through verbal abuse, throwing of items at employees, harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment. This behavior was all condoned by Shinseki, or worse yet, he had no idea of what was happening on his own staff.

In terms of the claims backlog; this was only one focus out of 16 major initiatives that Secretary Shinseki had decided to commit the Department's resources towards. His main focus has been to eliminate veteran's homelessness. It is well known throughout the VA that this is Shinseki's pet project. Not to claim that veteran's homelessness is not a worthy cause. But when he began to focus on this problem, their were approximately 90,000 homeless veterans throughout the country. Many have mental and substance abuse issues which make this a very complex issue. To his credit, they have cut that number in half. But why focus all of his energies on a complex group of 90,000 veterans, while 850,000 veterans are waiting for disability claims to be processed? The claims backlog was never a focus of Shinseki as he approved Agent Orange veterans, Gulf War Syndrome veterans and priority 8 veterans to apply for disability claims which flooded an adjudication system that was already burdened with 200,000 backlogged claims.

The greater question is Shinseki's judgement. He brags that he has secured a 40% increase in VA's budget and that they have hired an additional 20,000 employees, but with no improvement in the delivery of care or benefits to the veteran. The money and employees only matter if the output to the veteran improves. Internal processes with the creation of dozens of governance bodies makes any effort to streamline and implement an initiative impossible. The VA under Shinseki has become a management consulting experiment gone awry.

Since he has been in office, Secretary Shinseki's personal staff on the 10th floor of the VA has tripled from the previous administrations along with very expensive travel on board DoD G-5 jets in which the VA must reimburse DoD hundreds of thousands of dollars of operating costs. A sense of entitlement by he and his staff along with a true lack of responsibility as a good steward of taxpayers dollars while veterans suffer is shameful. One only has to look at last years HR Conference in Florida where the VA spent $8 million on a conference that HR staff attended for training. Shinseki's Chief of Staff was cited in a VA OIG report as having approved this expenditure. The Assistant Secretary was fired for this malfeasance. 

Rick Shinseki is a true patriot and dedicated to this country, and is dedicated to veterans. But after 4 1/2 years with not much success, he was ill-equipped and unprepared to lead such a robust complex agency. The job of Secretary of VA and the mission to care for veterans is bigger than any one man.



Read more: http://swampland.time.com/2013/03/25/shinseki-stonewall/#ixzz2Oi3zgi8T

cato
cato

Assuming Klein never served, I have to educate him.  I am a Viet vet from a family of doctor's.  I got tired of paying so much for medical insurance I did not need, so I started using the VA.  Totally satisfied, and I am not one to be impressed easily.  Shinseki is doing OK, although how Obama can look him in the eye is beyond me.  Candyass guys like Klein and Barack Hussein should butt out of military matters, although Barack Hussein made a competent pick in Shinseki ( blind squirrel theory at work ).

ChrisS
ChrisS

So if Mitt Romney is supposed to want to serve the country, and is supposed to be such a good manager, do you think he would accept the post of running/reforming the VA?

Of course he won't, as there is no money in it for him, and I wouldn't wish such an awful fate on the veterans.

carotexas
carotexas

I knew Joe would be upset when he was not one that was leaving the administration.  Surprised you took so long to complain Joe.

gysgt213
gysgt213

Joe-Changing the political appointee of the VA will not begin to scratch the surface of the problems the VA will face for the next 30 to 40 years.  It ignores the political strife and funding problems the VA has faced the last 30-40 years.  During President H.W. Bush's administration we changed the VA head twice during 4 years.  During President Clinton's administration we changed agency heads 4 times in 8 years, same with G.W. Bush's administration, 4 times during 8 years.  All that changing made things better for vets how?  

In the current toxic political climate where the congress will treat any political appointee Obama proposes to the likes of Ted Cruz and his "I heard from the cousin of a friend' type questions, do really want the VA with all of its problem wasting even more time on that circus?

JimStarowicz
JimStarowicz

Klein, Frankly son it's You that needs to go, a journalist you're not, a partisan hack you are, as you judge others and in this case haven't a clue as to what's going on, before or with Gen Shinseki., judge yourself and actually do research you might finally learn something!!!

Funny how I didn't see any of this during the previous executive administration, their congresses that seek to privatize the agancy and still do and have for decades which is the reason they under fund it as they rubber stamp off the books wars of choice, All costs, and especially as to that administrations tool at the VA Principi with two more wars started and occupations of years, the abandoned missions of why we sent the military into that region winding down as it was left by them to become a bloody quagmire and lost interest here!!

As I said in the other: "Pony Up Joe, you, from that lofty post, haven't paid a dime for these wars but especially the long term results of, the peoples Responsibility the Veterans Administration, a decade plus now added to the previous decades and wars of!" And I'll bet with that income you've got you were invested in Defense Contractors and the no bid private contractors of these two wars and handsomely enriched yourself, at extremely low taxes if any at all, off those investments!!

Iraq War 10-Year Anniversary: 19 March - Done 'In Our Names'!!
After abandoning the main missions, and world help, for why we even sent the military into that region!!

“We are dealing with veterans, not procedures—with their problems, not ours.” —General Omar Bradley, First Administrator of the Veterans Administration

"If military action is worth our troops’ blood, it should be worth our treasure, too — not just in the abstract, but in the form of a specific ante by every American." -Andrew Rosenthal 10 Feb. 2013

"You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today." - Abraham Lincoln

No Revenues = Still No Sacrifice = That's Called 'Support' For The Troops = DeJa-Vu all over again!!
Neither war nor especially the results of, decades to come added to previous decades and wars of, have been paid for as the abandoned, and now forgotten, continues as those sent want in a drawdown to accomplish at least a very small portion of those main missions sent to accomplish!!

USN All Shore '67-'71 GMG3 Vietnam In Country '70-'71


Paul,nnto
Paul,nnto

It seems as if the VA is almost like insurance companies. Insurance is in the business of NOT paying out claims. 

JK's piece was fine as far as it went but I would have appreciated the administration's response to the problems he laid out. 

2plus2
2plus2

We are hoping the new Congressman will shake this VA Tree some so that some of the overdue fruit at the top falls off.  The top levels of Management at our local VA should be occupied by individuals with medical administration personnel who are qualified  for the position (and independent of VA) and hr at our local VA should be abolished as they serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the  problem by being the eyes and ears of the command.  

2plus2
2plus2

Furthermore, God forbid that we should bring any concerns to the power that be as we shall be cast out and looked as problems.  The VA locally has selects employees on who it is determined that will "play along" in the "them and us" game.  The top leadership with the local VA are nothing more than figure heads that will do anything they are told by higher ups to continue to get a higher paying salary.  The VA here in El Paso is nothing more than an income producing entity that is generated for those who are willing to play the game at high levels.  It is not about Veterans or their care.

2plus2
2plus2

The mentality of the VA is confrontational towards veterans.  There is also a big problem with placing (employing) family and friends of high ranking individuals in key positions to form the culture of protective status and becomes us against them mentality.  I speak for what is going on at the El Paso VA.  We have a big problem when you are supposed to be medically diagnosed and some PA's are reading you regulations of what you are qualified to be seen or not be seen for and when you tell her that she is full of it she calls security.  We, the veterans are not insane, the system in place is insane.  The VA system is bought and paid for in El Paso, Texas.

LarryHolman
LarryHolman

Speaking of Bob Kerrey, I would like for him to be considered for the position of Secretary of the VA.  An excellent #2 person there would be General Stanley McChrystal.  I think this combination would be excellent with the several important leadership/management tasks of Planning, PR, Policy, Innovation, Execution, Staffing, Control, and Accountability.  I'm certain that the lessons taught to us all by W. Edwards Deming have not been lost on these two.  The VA culture needs to be transformed from one where an adversarial relationship with their clients exists to one where the VA becomes a true advocate for all veterans.  The VA should be precluded from all forms of patronage for the well-connected and the percentange of employees who are themselves veterans should be tripled. 

SueFrasier
SueFrasier

I totally agree with the firing of Eric Shinseki. It's also time for sitting presidents to STOP! using the criteria formula for the position of VA Secretary as former "commander" types from DOD. It's time for the VA Secretary appointee slot to be updated to an academic background in "medical administration" and somebody who has a prominent understanding of medical patient care. Activists have been pointing to nominees from the Center For Disease Control and/or the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. It's time to do away with "chest full of medals" types because they are the wrong fit for the VA Secretary position. Good article here and thanks for raising this issue. ----- Sue Frasier, Army 1970, national veterans activist.