Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Editorial: Leadership and Accountability Can Help Fix the Troubled VA

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Editorial: Leadership and Accountability Can Help Fix the Troubled VA

Article excerpt

Frustration over mounting evidence that veterans died needlessly waiting for appointments at VA hospitals and reports of poor psychiatric care at the St. Louis VA have veterans groups demanding Eric Shinseki's resignation.

Mr. Shinseki, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, testified Thursday before Congress about the growing scandal.

In prepared testimony released before the hearing, he said, "I am personally angered and saddened by any adverse consequence that a veteran might experience while in, or as a result of, our care."

The testimony included Mr. Shinseki's statement that he had been advised by the VA Inspector General's Office to withhold information because of an ongoing, independent investigation.

This is clearly not going to placate veterans groups that have been calling for Mr. Shinseki's ouster for more than a year. In that time, the backlog of veterans waiting for care and compensation grew to more than 800,000.

Nor should they be placated. Ongoing investigations and vague answers don't fix the years of neglect and dysfunction that too often characterize VA medical care.

The St. Louis problem, which came to light on Tuesday, long after the attack on Mr. Shinseki was underway, is similar to the complaints from other cities.

In this case, Dr. Jose Mathews, the former chief of psychiatry for the St. Louis VA hospital system, filed a federal whistleblower complaint last year saying he was demoted after complaining to authorities about an "artificial backlog" of care.

Dr. Mathews, who also is on the faculty of Washington University, took over the psychiatry services for the VA system in November 2012. He said he found that psychiatrists saw about six patients a day for 30-minute appointments each, about half the number of patients he thought they should be seeing.

Dr. Mathews said the staff balked when he tried to get them to see more patients. His other allegations included "misleading" data produced by the local VA that inaccurately boosted patient numbers; that his request for an investigation into two veterans' deaths had been denied; whether officials intentionally failed to report a suicide attempt; and bonus payments to staff regardless of their productivity.

Missouri's U.S. senators, Republican Roy Blunt and Democrat Claire McCaskill, sent a letter to Mr. Shinseki on Monday asking for information on the hospital's mental health staff. They asked for details about how many patients are seen daily and the average wait time for treatment.

The pervasive problems crippling the VA are not new. Forcing Mr. Shinseki out won't solve the problems, although it would send an important message about leadership accountability. Mr. Shinseki, a retired four-star general who was Army chief of staff, should understand the concept of command accountability. …

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