When President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday about the growing scandals at the Department of Veterans Affairs, some veterans asked why it took so long for their commander in chief to speak up.
Darrell Richardson attended a town hall meeting in Phoenix last week to tell fellow veterans about the death of his brother, Dennis. Since then, Richardson has been speaking out about the problems with the VA, and asking why Obama and others had not commented or taken action.
“We just feel abandoned,” he said.
Dennis Richardson had been diagnosed with liver cancer at a civilian hospital in July 2012, but when he tried to get an appointment at the Phoenix VA, he was told he would have to wait seven months, his brother said.
A few months later, Dennis’ pain was so severe that he went to the VA’s emergency room for help. He was started on chemotherapy, but stopped the treatments after a few weeks because he was so sick, Darrell said. He died Nov. 8, 2012.
At this point, Richardson said, the president and the VA should be finding veterans who have life-threatening illnesses that require immediate appointments, and getting them in front of doctors.
“Let’s find out who needs care right now, and get them in for an appointment. If the president would have said that [Wednesday] morning, I would have been absolutely ecstatic,” he said.
After a closed-door meeting Wednesday with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, whom Obama had already tasked with helping sort out the VA, Obama said that the inspector general has launched investigations into the Phoenix VA and other VA facilities, and that anyone found to have manipulated records will be punished.
Nabors will meet with the heads of veterans service organizations in Phoenix on Thursday.
Gene Crego, Arizona state council president for Vietnam Veterans of America, said he was satisfied with Obama’s statement, though “it took longer than what we were hoping for.”
Crego said he agrees that there are many dedicated people in the VA system, but also knows the long delays in getting an appointment is “something that’s been happening for years,” in part because there is not enough staff.
Obama said his administration has made progress by boosting funding, making VA benefits available to more veterans, and “launching an all-out war on the disability claims backlog.”
But Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the president’s “long-overdue” remarks “were a tremendous disappointment” and “did nothing to quell the growing nationwide VA controversy.”
The American Legion and several members of Congress have called for Shinseki to resign because of the allegations, but Obama on Wednesday called Shinseki “a great soldier.”
“Nobody cares more about our veterans than Ric Shinseki,” Obama said. “He has put his heart and soul into this thing and he has taken it very seriously ... At this stage, [Shinseki] is committed to solving the problem and working with us to do it.”
Richardson and Crego said they think keeping Shinseki in place, at least for now, is the best decision.
“It makes no sense to get rid of him,” Richardson said. “At least he’s committed to helping the vets. He just needs the tools and the authority to do it.”
But American Legion National Commander Daniel Dellinger said the decision to keep Shinseki is “an unfortunate one.”
“The VA,” Dellinger said, “has been aware for some time that inappropriate scheduling procedures are widespread among its medical facilities. Yet Secretary Shinseki has taken no initiative in correcting the problem. Veterans continue to die waiting for their health care, senior VA executives continue to get their bonuses, and only after all of this is the secretary now pledging to fix what’s wrong.”
A 2010 VA memo obtained by the American Legion shows that officials were aware of “gaming strategies” to meet performance measures.
Dr. Samuel Foote, one of the whistleblowers in the Phoenix VA case, first wrote a letter to the inspector general alleging secret waiting lists in late October 2013.
Foote, who retired from the VA in 2013 after more than 23 years, told Stars and Stripes he had known about the waiting lists earlier that year, after a clerk told him they weren’t allowed to make new patient appointments, but he didn’t know until late August that some patients on the list had died while waiting for an appointment.
In the meantime, he said, Sharon Helman, the director of the Phoenix VA Health Care System, received a $9,345 bonus in 2013 for reducing the time it took for patients to get return and follow-up appointments from almost a year to an average of two weeks, even though 13,000 patients were still without primary care providers, Foote said.
“What’s the return wait time when you don’t have a provider?” he said. “It’s infinity … not something to be proud of.”
Teams that met the “wildly important goals” set out by Helman — who has since been put on administrative leave — were rewarded with pizza, Foote said.
“We all celebrated, though later we found out we were celebrating the deaths of several people,” he said.
A July 2012 email exchange reported by the Arizona Republic shows that Helman and other officials were aware then that the data was misleading.
Damian Reese, a program analyst, had written, “I think it’s unfair to call any of this a success when veterans are waiting six weeks on an electronic waiting list before they’re called to schedule their first [primary care] appointment, Sure, when their appointment was created, [it] can be 14 days out, but we’re making them wait 6-20 weeks to create that appointment. That is unethical and a disservice to our veterans,” according to the Arizona Republic.
Records obtained by Fox News show that more than $843,000 in bonuses was awarded to about half the system’s 3,170 workers from 2011 to 2013, and that the hospital spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on gardening and interior design while patients in the emergency room waited hours for care.
Dellinger said that now, veterans are again being told to wait for things to get better.
“Words are nice, and even somewhat comforting,” he said, “but when will the VA’s house be cleansed of those who are soiling it and dishonoring the system?”