Shinseki To Address Claims Veterans Died Waiting For Care

On the day the Secretary for Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki testifies before a Senate committee, Renee Montagne talks to journalist Aaron Glantz about a series of recent controversies at the VA.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In an unusual move, the American Legion is calling on the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to step down. That comes in the wake of accusations that a VA facility in Arizona kept a secret list of veterans who were not able to see a doctor in a timely fashion.

INSKEEP: The list was allegedly aimed at concealing lengthy delays in care during which some veterans died.

MONTAGNE: Now, local VA officials deny any cover-up. But Secretary Eric Shinseki has ordered an audit of every facility. And this morning he faces questions from a Senate committee on Capitol Hill.

Aaron Glantz is with the Center for Investigative Reporting, where he spent years looking into Veterans Issues. We reached him to find out more about this latest controversy.

AARON GLANTZ: There was a story that came out that said that the VA in Phoenix had been systematically keeping two different lists of patients - the official list, which showed that everything was fine, and then a secret list that showed these incredibly long delays that every veteran knows are regular at the VA. And the other thing that came out was that 40 veterans had died as a result of these delays.

In a way these are new explosive revelations. They came with a whistleblower, a doctor who recently retired from the Phoenix hospital. But in a way these are old allegations. The idea that the VA has been manipulating data on wait times was in an inspector general's report in 2005, again in 2007, again in 2012.

MONTAGNE: There are actually two different things going on here. Delayed care is one thing. But covering it up is an entirely different thing. And, as you say, this is not the first or only incident.

GLANTZ: There was a story that came out that was similar in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in Hines, Illinois, in St. Louis where we featured the chief psychiatrist who had been demoted - after asking his colleagues to see more patients. And he alleged that the VA had been fixing productivity data around mental health care, so that psychiatrists got bonuses even when they didn't see patients. So it's happening all over, one facility at a time.

MONTAGNE: It is pretty stunning to hear that there are allegations that a psychiatrist - or any doctor or any medical person - would profit from lying about the care that was given.

GLANTZ: This is an old story also at the VA. Last year we did a story about the backlog of disability claims at the VA. And we used leaked government documents to show that the number of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits had gone up 2,000 percent under President Obama. And another thing that we found is that the people most responsible for those delays were getting the largest bonuses in the entire agency.

So it all goes to the question of accountability. A lot of these problems predate Secretary Shinseki. But now he's been in the chair for almost six years, so what has he done to solve these problems?

MONTAGNE: Well, it is the case though that this has erupted at a time when the VA, under Shinseki, is actually making a dent in this huge backlog of veterans waiting for their benefits.

GLANTZ: He responded to that problem. And now the number of veterans facing these long waits has declined tremendously. But, you know, outside critics say this is an agency that should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You know, it shouldn't be the case that when they're solving this problem of people waiting for disability compensation they should also be solving this other problem of people not being able to get health care.

There is not a basic kind of functionality of uniformity in this kind of federal agency that if you're a veteran and you served in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflict and you come home, you have reasonable expectation that you're going to get disability benefits if you need it and top quality health care no matter where you live.

MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for talking with us.

GLANTZ: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Aaron Glantz is with the Center for Investigative Reporting. He's also the author of the book "The War Comes Home: Washington's Battle Against America's Veterans."

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