VA Secretary Responds To Call For His Resignation

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki responds to calls for his resignation, following reports of veterans dying while waiting for treatment.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour with the head of the department of Veterans Affairs, General Eric Shinseki. I sat down with him at his office today. The secretary is at the center of a roiling controversy over medical care for former service men and women and he's facing calls for his resignation.

BLOCK: One issue, the VA Hospital in Phoenix where 40 patients are alleged to have died because of delays in their care. Another point of contention, a finding that clerks at a Colorado clinic were falsifying appointment records to cover up delays. The nation's largest veteran's group, the American Legion, says Shinseki's leadership exhibits a pattern of bureaucratic incompetence and today, three Republican senators piled on.

One, John Cornyn of Texas said President Obama needs a new leader to bring the organization, in his words, out of the wilderness.

SIEGEL: Secretary Shinseki, welcome to the program.

SECRETARY ERIC SHINSEKI: Thanks again.

SIEGEL: You're department is now investigating charges that the Phoenix VA hospital in effect cooked the books on the waiting list. The allegation is that they made it look like people were waiting no longer than two weeks and they did it by keeping a longer real list off the record. First, if that's true, is it fireable, is it criminal, is it immoral?

SHINSEKI: Yeah, well, I heard about this the first time following a congressional testimony, 9 April, just allegations like this get my attention. I take it seriously and my habit is to get to the bottom of it. So that afternoon, I asked the IG to go Phoenix and...

SIEGEL: The inspector general.

SHINSEKI: The inspector general. Independent inspector general to get to the bottom of things. And I await the outcomes. I've checked a number of times to make sure that he has what he needs because this is a comprehensive look and, you know, if allegations are substantiated, we're going to take swift and appropriate action.

SIEGEL: Of course, the American Legion has called for you to step down. If they are substantiated, would that be sufficient reason for you to step down?

SHINSEKI: Well, let's see what the, you know, inspector general comes back with and - substantiation. I, you know, for five years now in this job have focused on making sure veterans are well cared for, they have access and they receive high quality healthcare and also that we take care of their needs in terms of disability benefits.

SIEGEL: Are you at all concerned that this might be a case of demanding improvements like reduced waiting lists without providing sufficient resources to see more patients more quickly so you build in, well, an incentive to get fake compliance, people trying to make the numbers look good when they can't really perform that well?

SHINSEKI: Well, if that's what is at work here, you know, we have a set of values we live by, first word, and that set of values is the word integrity. And we set goals for ourselves, but we also expect that we're going to find a way to resource them to get to those goals so no shortcuts are accepted.

SIEGEL: The department's inspector general is looking into the allegations in Phoenix at the Veterans hospital. There've been some claims more recently that similar things were going on in Colorado and Texas. Are those also part of the investigation and are you thinking that there might be the rare rotten apple or perhaps a systemic problem?

SHINSEKI: Sure. You know, I became aware of the situation in Fort Collins primarily as a result of our own inspection and the Office of Medical Inspector provided the findings. And based on those findings, I have directed Dr. Petzel to do a system-wide look of exactly what's the status of our scheduling program and how are we doing at implementing the policies and the standards that we've laid out for ourselves.

SIEGEL: Last year, when you were being criticized for the VA backlogs, the then national commander of the American Legion said this. He said, while we do not deny that problems and inefficiencies exist, placing the blame on Secretary Shinseki is wholly unwarranted and disingenuous. In truth, General Shinseki has been one of the veteran's communities most effective and forceful advocates.

This is the same group that, a little bit over a year later, is now saying you should go. It sounds like you lost a really good friend there and when you lose old friends like that, is it time to rethink what you're doing?

SHINSEKI: Well, we've worked, I've worked very hard for five years now to establish a strong working relationship with all the veterans' service organizations. In fact, I just had breakfast with veteran service organizations here this week so it's a constant dialogue. I also travel and wherever I visit our facilities, I ask to see veterans. And what veterans say counts.

And I get direct and very helpful feedback from veterans so I'm not sure what, you know, lead to this concern on the part of the American Legion, but, you know, communication is important to me and I'll, you know, go to work on it.

SIEGEL: Well, they have another run of complaints. They say that things can go way wrong at the veterans' hospital. In one case, there can be an outbreak of legionnaire's disease. They would say, due to mismanagement. I don't know. But they'd say, the head of the hospital can get a big bonus and that people in the department are rewarded sometimes for less than excellent or even less than competent performance.

SHINSEKI: Well, whenever we discover, you know, an incident like legion -- and by the way, that's something we discover just as the Fort Collins incident is something we discover, we get in there and we get to the root cause and make sure we understand what caused it. What I owe veterans are quality and safety and healthcare and quick response to their needs in terms of disability claims.

And so we get to the root causes. We figure out what needs to happen all across the system. It is a large system, 1700 points of care. And then, we, to the best of our abilities, you know, make those decisions that never allow this to happen again.

SIEGEL: Is there any finding that could come back from your inspector general or from other senior officials at the department about waiting times, how the books are kept, how the numbers are presented to you, is there anything you could see that would lead you to say, oh, boy, this happened on my watch. I've just got to leave this job right now.

SHINSEKI: Well, that's a hypothetical. What's not hypothetical, though, is that I serve at the pleasure of the president. I signed on to do this, to help him make things better for veterans in the near term as quickly as possible and then to put in place for the long term, those changes to this department that will continue to help veterans well into this century.

And so as long as the president feels that I am serving him well and serving veterans well, there's work to be done.

SIEGEL: Secretary of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinseki, General Shinseki, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SHINSEKI: Thank you.

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