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Why is it so hard for some veterans to get care from the VA?

May 21, 2014 at 6:07 PM EDT
President Obama defended embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki Wednesday, but warned that someone will be held accountable for any revealed shortcomings amid allegations that 40 veterans died awaiting care. Gwen Ifill gets two views on the troubles inside the VA from former Defense Department official David McGinnis and Joseph Violante of Disabled American Veterans.

GWEN IFILL: President Obama pledged support for embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki today, but he warned that there will be accountability at the agency if allegations against the VA are proven true.

The president came to the White House Briefing Room to pledge he will get to the bottom of what’s wrong at the VA.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will not stand for it, not as commander in chief, but also not as an American. None of us should. So, if these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it, period.

GWEN IFILL: These allegations range from delaying treatment to falsifying records. And, overnight, the VA inspector general expanded his investigation to 26 VA facilities, up from 10 last week.

Ground zero is this VA hospital in Phoenix, Arizona, where it’s been claimed 40 veterans died while awaiting care. This morning, President Obama met privately with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who faced a Senate hearing last week, amid calls for him to resign.

GEN. ERIC SHINSEKI, Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Any adverse incident like this makes me as — makes me mad as hell.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama defended Shinseki’s overall work, but said someone will be held accountable for any shortcomings.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If you ask me, you know, how do I think Eric Shinseki has performed overall, I would say that, on homelessness, on the 9/11 G.I. Bill, on working with us to reduce the backlog across the board, he has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously.

GWEN IFILL: Lawmakers from both parties said more needs to be done.

Republican South Dakota Senator John Thune:

SEN. JOHN THUNE, R, S.D.: Tough words just aren’t enough when it comes to this issue. We need action. And they are looking at some specific sites around the country. I happen to believe, and I have got a bill that calls for a nationwide investigation by the I.G, because I think this is not an isolated instance. This is systemic.

GWEN IFILL: The president’s words drew mixed reaction from veterans groups.

In a statement, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said: “They were the right words, and we share the president’s urgency to fix what’s broke, to hold people appropriately accountable.”

But the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America was more critical. “He did nothing to quell the growing nationwide VA controversy,” the group said in a statement. “The public trust with the VA and Secretary Shinseki is broken.”

On Capitol Hill, the House moved to set aside civil service protections and give the VA secretary more power to fire or demote top executives in the department. He would be the only Cabinet member with that authority. A similar measure has been filed in the Senate.

So, how has the Obama administration handled this veterans wait list issue?

We have two views. Retired Army Brigadier General David McGinnis was a member of Admirals and Generals for Obama in 2008. He held a senior job at the Defense Department during the Obama administration’s first term, and is active in veteran health issues. And Joseph Violante is national legislative director at Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy organization with 1.2 million members.

Both — welcome you both, gentlemen.

DAVID MCGINNIS, Former Defense Department Official: Good evening.

GWEN IFILL: General McGinnis, how serious, how widespread do you think this problem is?

DAVID MCGINNIS: Oh, I agree. I think it’s systemic.

It’s across the — it’s across the whole department and it goes beyond just medical care. There’s a serious culture issue within VA. There’s an attitude within VA that they’re exempt from congressional action and from the executive, from the president’s executive orders. And there’s plenty of evidence of that during this administration and beyond back two or three administrations.

And I think they become conditioned that they really don’t have to do what the secretary or the president tells them to do. And I’m talking about the mid-level, professional executives that the bill in the House is targeted at.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Joseph Violante about that.

Do you think it’s as serious as he does?

JOSEPH VIOLANTE, Disabled American Veterans: I think it’s serious and I think we will find out as these investigations go forward just how widespread it is.

I disagree with some of the comments David has made. The VA employees that I have met from around the country are very dedicated individuals looking to help veterans. The biggest problem here is the funding issues.

Once you get into the VA health care system, the quality of care is excellent. Access into that system is difficult, and it’s been shortchanged over the last 10 years by about $7.8 billion.

GWEN IFILL: Joe Violante makes the point that the last 10 years have been a decade of war and the president made that point today. Has that exacerbated problems that existed before, General McGinnis?

DAVID MCGINNIS: Oh, I think it’s exacerbated a system, because the system was designed for conscripted army that came back home, dissolved, left the control of the Department of Defense, and went off back to their civilian world, where in the early part of the 20th century, didn’t have a lot of medical care.

And now we have the same system which is used to being self-contained, used to being focused internally, and used to treating veterans who came to them. They don’t understand outreach. They don’t understand the secretary’s guidance to, if you can’t handle people in the medical condition in 14 days, go out into the civilian economy, go to civilian providers. And it’s seven days for mental health. Neither one of those — neither one of those standards are being met today.

GWEN IFILL: Joe Violante, if there’s the problem that we see being investigated now about these wait lists, do we know if it stops there? Is it beyond? Is it systemic?

JOSEPH VIOLANTE: Well, it’s a good question. And you have to go back to 2001, when President Bush established a task force to look at the delivery of health care for veterans. And they reported in May of 2003, and the wars were in their early infancy back in 2003.

And at that point in time, they found a wait list of 236,000 veterans waiting six months or more for health care, and they found a mismatch in demand and funding. So this has gone on for a long time. It is a problem. But, again, the problem of access is a funding issue that needs to be addressed.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I just wanted to ask about the wait list question because the White House said today the number actually has gone down.

DAVID MCGINNIS: The number has gone down. And the number has gone down to some extent with the processing of applications for benefits.

But the internal problem that we have is that — and I disagree with Joe on this — is that they have gotten more money, number one. And number two is there is no shift in priorities. The internal attitude is, if you want me to do more, give me more money, instead of taking a look at, this is the new world order. We got Vietnam veterans from — both of us are Vietnam veterans from — from our generation now realizing, hey, we need the VA. We went 30 years without realizing that, or longer.

Also, we’re — you have this whole new group of veterans coming in. And we haven’t adjusted the priorities inside VA to spend the money appropriately.

We have a lot of staffing problems with medical staff across VA, which is indicated in this particular issue in Arizona. I have a case that I’m working right now in Hampton, New York — I’m sorry — Hampton, Virginia — where we don’t have enough staffing in a particular discipline, so that veterans can get the appointments they need to get taken care of.

GWEN IFILL: If these problems, if these concerns have been long documented, I guess the elephant in the room is whether Secretary Shinseki should have done more about it and if not whether he should be forced to resign.

JOSEPH VIOLANTE: Secretary Shinseki has done a lot to turn things around. He has reduced the claims backlog. He’s looking into this situation with regards to the wait times on the health care.

He’s trying to eliminate homelessness amongst veterans. There’s been a lot going on since he’s come in. And, again, the funding issue existed long before he came in. The problem with demand and access has existed for a long time.

I do agree VA has gotten a lot of money, and there may be a need to look at how effectively they’re spending it, but there is still a mismatch between demand and funding.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a housecleaning necessary at the VA?

BRIG GEN. DAVID MCGINNIS: Oh, I think there is, but I would like to see the investigation go beyond the inspector general.

One of the members of the Senate committee — and I — my group and myself have been working with both committees in the House and the Senate and their staffs. And one of the members of the committee in the session last week with General Shinseki recommended involving the FBI.

I’m even to the point where I would support a special prosecutor on this issue, because I think this has gone on a long time. There’s been a lot of duplicity and deception here. And I think that we, the veterans, and General Shinseki and the president have been victimized by this culture of duplicity in the VA.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s just — that’s my final question, which at its root, are veterans, who many of them made huge sacrifices for their country, are they being victimized because of this and other problems that are being left unaddressed?

JOSEPH VIOLANTE: If they’re getting their care, they’re not being victimized. They’re getting quality care. Getting into the system is a problem and that needs to be addressed. And, again, we need to ensure the VA has the resources necessary to do that, and that they’re spending those resources wisely.

GWEN IFILL: Final thought?

DAVID MCGINNIS: I think it’s important that we realize Americans need to come up with — need to support a solution that changes — that changes what’s going on today in the VA. It’s that simple.

And I think that the president’s call for everybody to come together, make this a — and veterans have never been a partisan issue, whether at the state level or the federal level. And I hope they will all come together and put together some type of discussion and come to a decision, the president and the two committee chairmen come to a decision on what we really need to do and then jam it through.

GWEN IFILL: David McGinnis and Joseph Violante, thank you both very much.